Updated: Oct 6
The media can be a brilliant place to find out more about the latest scientific advances and healthy lifestyle tips. But sometimes we wish that they'd do things just a little differently. Here are 5 things that dietitians wish they wouldn't do.
1 False Balance – Not Everything has Two Equal Sides.
Apparently, conflict is high up on the list of things that are considered newsworthy; people like to read about disagreements. And in fact, broadcasters such as television and radio news are required by law to provide balance, to present both sides of the story.
But you have to be very careful when presenting a discussion between two opposing 'experts'. First that they are actually both experts, and second that you’re not putting across the impression that both arguments have equal value, or that the truth simply lies somewhere in between.
It’s very common to hear a scientist with many years’ experience in a field, being invited on to debate with someone with little experience, but who has their own wild theory (and usually a book) to promote.
Now I’m the first to admit that some amazing scientific advancements have gone completely against the status quo, but I’m guessing the wild changes recommended by the latest diet book is unlikely to be one of them.
2 The Latest, Greatest, Simple Diet (with Added Shocking Ingredient).
Continuing the theme of what makes a good news story, one that interests, surprises or shocks people is pretty high up on the list. And there is always interest in the possibility of a new way to lose weight, particularly something that involves surprising or shocking ingredients. If a famous person is willing to be interviewed to promote the new diet, with fabulous before and after photos, all the better.
Right at the moment weight loss is even more in the public eye, with it reported that being overweight may increase the risk from a COVID-19 infection. So, a new diet ticks many of the 'winning news story' boxes.
But this all can add to the myth that if we could just find the right diet, we would easily lose weight with little effort whilst never feeling hungry. Often these miracle plans involve cutting whole groups of foods completely out of your diet, reducing the calories that you eat. This can work very well short term, but can be really difficult to keep up long term, particularly if that stops you enjoying favourite foods or meals with family and friends.
This can then lead to the flip side story, which is 'diets don’t work'. Clearly a lot of them do short term, but it would be more realistic to say 'diets don't keep working long term if you can't enjoy your life whilst sticking to them'. If you go back to eating what you did before then the weight just goes back on.
There’s also another worry with these stories, all those photos of happy shiny, airbrushed people who have successfully lost weight and had all their problems solved. Don’t get me wrong, losing weight and getting active will certainly make most people feel healthier and more energetic, but it won’t necessarily solve all of life’s problems. Which can make it mighty hard to stick to that beetroot and sauerkraut plan when things don’t improve the way you’d hoped.
3 Diet Research Provides Facts Written in Stone.
Research into diet sounds so straightforward on paper. Find out what people eat, and see what effect different foods or nutrients have on their health. Or change what people eat and see if it makes a difference. What could possibility go wrong?
First let's think about who volunteers to take part in a research project about diet? Unless you take great care, they will only be those who already have an interest in healthy eating and are well motivated to make changes and stick to them. They might already be living a health lifestyle and so get few benefits, or your results might not be the same for the less motivated majority.
It can also be challenging to find out what people are really eating and how much exercise they do. It can be tempting to tell the researcher what you think they want to hear, or what you think you should be eating. People also generally tend to report what they intend to eat rather than what they actually do eat on a cold Wednesday evening after a long day and there’s nothing in the fridge and the kids are hungry.
Even observing what people eat isn’t fool proof. Just keeping a diary can make you eat more healthily, as the act of having to write something down makes you think twice about whether you really want it.
Then we also need to consider what sort of study it is and who runs it. The most highly rated scientific study has a mouthful of a name: the 'double-blind placebo-controlled' trial. In these trials half of participants are given the thing you are studying, say a new medication, and half a placebo that doesn’t contain it. That’s the placebo-controlled bit. It’s double blind because neither the participant nor the researcher knows who gets the medication. This means it is difficult for biases such as overestimating the medication's benefits to creep in.
But in diet trials using food, it is impossible to have a placebo for food. The best you can do is compare the change, for example new dietary advice for people with diabetes, with a group that carry on with the normal advice you were giving before.
When you run a study looking at giving people new dietary advice, those giving it tend to be really motivated people, committed to a positive outcome, who are given time to do it properly. This combined with the higher motivation levels of people taking part often leads to better results from the study than you might get when the advice is given by a busy member of staff, with little time, to someone who might be less keen to try new changes.
It doesn’t mean that dietary research isn’t valuable, it’s just it can be challenging to get consistent results that work as well when they meet the real world. It’s also very easy for the media to just look at the press release for single small studies and herald the results as definite and written in stone, which leads to the next challenge.
4 They Can’t Make Their Minds Up.
Leading on from this; we do all like a nice 'they can’t make their mind up' story about how nutritionists/doctors can't agree about what is good or bad for you. You can see the appeal; if nutrition experts can’t agree, what’s the point of making changes?
As I explained above, the desire to present everything as a conflict or to represent both sides of the story can be one reason for this, but it's also about how science is reported.
All science needs to be funded by someone, and scientists spend a good deal of their time applying for funding. If the area they are researching is in the public interest, and the researcher has a record of successful research in the past, this might help justify applying for money to do more research in that area.
So press releases about the result of studies are understandably going to present the results in the best possible light. The media pick this up and can over simplify it to report the result like it's a confirmed fact. Words like 'may show' and 'needs more research' don't really make for a good story.
In reality we need to take all the high quality small studies on a subject, and see what they show as a whole. And it's entirely possible that doing this again a couple of years down the line, when more research has been done, might show something different.
Dietary advice has actually stayed pretty stable since the ground breaking research used to create guidelines for rationing in World War 2. But of course things do sometimes change. In my previous blog 'Why do people keep telling me different things about diabetes?' I discuss how advice on cholesterol in foods such as eggs and prawns has changed and why.
5 The Nanny State Presents: 'The Diet Police'.
The press is also very happy to present diet experts as the diet police and part of the nanny state. We are do gooders who should leave people alone to make their own decisions as freedom loving Brits. But this leaves us with rather a large problem.
Imagine this situation. The research has been done; we have discovered that perhaps it might be an idea to cut down a little on processed meat, as it can increase the risk of bowel cancer if it’s eaten regularly in large amounts.
So, what do should we do? We can explain this risk, hopefully in a clear way that helps people understand exactly what their risk is and make their own decisions. Strap in tight, here comes the 'bacon sarnie police' story.
But the alternative is to know that the risk is there and not make an effort to explain it. It’s really not a good look 10 years down the line, when it is discovered that you knew that there was a risk and didn’t tell anyone because you didn’t think they wanted to hear about it.
Although that would probably make a good news story as well. . .
How an appointment with a Diabetes Specialist Dietitian will help.
Diabetes Specialist Dietitians are experts in diet and diabetes. They complete a four-year dietetics degree with clinical placements before starting work in the NHS, then usually work for a period as a general dietitian, seeing patients with a range of different medical conditions before specialising in diabetes. Upon graduating I worked in general diabetes and weight management for 2 years before working as a Diabetes Specialist Dietitian since 2009.
I am trained to look at all the scientific evidence on diet and lifestyle, and translate it into straightforward, practical advice that works. I am familiar with the different diet and lifestyle approaches for managing diabetes and how each interacts with medication prescribed for diabetes. This means that I can explain the benefits and drawbacks of each to help you make your own mind up about what changes you want to make to benefit your diabetes control and health.
When you book an hour-long appointment with me, you will have more time to have all your questions about diet answered. I will also ask you about all the things that might affect your food choices such as your medical history and medication, who you live and eat with, what your job and hobbies are and your likes and dislikes. This will help me to support you to decide which changes to make that will fit in with your life and work for you.
I am currently offering Video Consultations allowing you to talk to me at a place and time that suits you. Appointments can be booked online from my website by clicking the book now button below or click services for more information about what I offer.