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Keeping It Simple with Nutrition

Anyone who’s thought about their weight or food has almost certainly read a lot about nutrition. But have you ever noticed that some of that information is contradictory or that it can change over time?

I started thinking about this recently while reading The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson. In the chapter “Food, Glorious Food,” he talks about how much we still don’t know, and it reminded me of some reasons why, when it comes to nutrition, it’s best to keep it simple.

Calories aren’t everything

I think we’re all familiar with the “calories in, calories out” approach to nutrition, but that has some drawbacks.

Wilbur Atwater, the man who determined the caloric value of thousands of foods, thought that the only evaluation for food (or drink) was how many calories a food contained. The higher the caloric better, the more valuable a source of fuel it was. In the late 1800s, he had no concept of vitamins or minerals or a balanced diet. The calorie was everything.

These days, you can easily find out the caloric value of pretty much any food, as well as other nutritional information – how much protein or fat, if it has certain vitamins, etc.

This makes it all too easy to fall into the trap of calorie counting, although as Bryson pointed out, this has another drawback. Mainly, it doesn’t take into account the way our bodies absorb foods. If a food isn’t as digestible, even though it contains a certain number of calories, our bodies won’t actually absorb all those calories. (p. 229)

Changing goalposts

Then there’s the fact that nutrition recommendations change fairly often, and some of them are controversial.

Salt is a big area of discussion. No one argues at this point that we need some amount of salt, but the key question is, how much? You’ll die if you don’t get enough, but having too much causes problems, too.

And different studies present different findings, with some suggesting that more salt is okay than others. It seems doubtful that anyone will agree, either, since both groups have confirmation bias – they only look for the information that supports their stance and they ignore what the other side is saying. (p. 245)

This confirmation bias likely impacts many things you read about nutrition. For example, studies show different results about the impact of eating saturated fats, with some linking saturated fats to heart disease, and others saying that there’s no clear evidence of a link between the two. (p.241)

And these days, if you’re looking for information to support ideas about certain nutritional approaches, you’re likely to find something on the internet to agree with you. Most of us like finding people who agree with us, but it doesn’t give us a complete picture.

Too much of a good thing

I also worry about any discussion saying that certain foods or nutritional elements are better than others because it can encourage people to overdo it with those things.

We all need certain vitamins and minerals to be healthy, but it can be easy to think that if a little is good, more is better. But that’s not necessarily true. Iron and chromium are examples of necessary micronutrients, but too much becomes toxic.

In fact, too much of anything can be fatal. Bryson shared stories of people who drank too much water and died! This can happen because our kidneys can’t process and get rid of that much water all at once, while means that the sodium in the blood becomes too diluted, putting us dangerously out of balance. (p. 238)

Moderation and balance

It’s very, very easy to get caught up in all the nutrition information out there, whether you’re looking at calories, carbs, protein, sodium, or something else. But the reality is, if you focus on one or two of those numbers, you’re likely missing other important details, and you might be basing your decisions on incorrect or outdated information.

A better approach is to simply practice moderation and balance in your food choices. If you overdo it on something one day, maybe cut back a little on the next day. And unless you have a medical reason to be tracking specific numbers, this will likely work for you just fine, and you’ll be more relaxed when eating.


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