We’ve all seen the health studies about our favorite food or beverage being linked to an increased risk of cancer. Perhaps we’ve even seen a later study that seemed to contradict it, proving it to be safe. This situation can naturally leave us questioning our foods and wondering where the secret dangers lurk. The answer is that it isn’t so simple: a healthy diet depends on having a plan far more than on avoiding any one thing.
Scientific research is integral, of course. It would be foolish to deny the potential that surveys and experiments can have in revealing new facts about dietary science. There have even been massive campaigns associated with nutrition research. Studies revealing the connections between obesity and heart-disease helped promote new national programs to curb this alarming trend, but these gains didn’t come overnight. The American Heart Association has shown long-term research that has been surprisingly consistent.
The issue, then, is one of research quality. How do we find out what is harmful when there are so many seemingly contradictory reports on so many foods? Hearing about the possible health benefits of coffee is certainly a human interest story but is not a fundamental revelation about diet. The researchers that find possible cancer risks from foods don’t often lead campaigns to boycott the ingredients; they usually suggest the need for more studies to clarify the results.
Despite the fact that these studies and experiments are often reported as conclusive, they seldom are. Studies are made to be replicated and confirmed. This process is what advances learning and encourages organizations to heed the results. What leads us to know anything about health is studies being repeated so often and under so many conditions that the findings become standard.
But achieving this level of consistency is hard. Each study has to attempt to isolate one single thing as the cause of a larger problem. While this is tricky to begin with, it is more difficult given how many different things someone may eat in even a single day. It is possible that only very long-term repeated research provides a reliable look at the nutritional quality of certain foods and these kinds of studies aren’t very common. There are also issues of whether test subjects can even reliably report their meals. These issues often make it easy to find one food as a “cancer risk” when in fact there are many other unreported things going on. This was illustrated rather poetically when a researcher picked 50 ingredients from a cookbook at random and found most of them to be associated with cancer using the same techniques used in other studies.
So while these studies have the potential to give us the wrong idea, they can also be harmful by distracting us from taking a hard look at what we are eating. The issue never lies in one thing, and it is often large improvements in diet that have the biggest impact on overall health. One-off studies can’t tell you how to get the proper nutrients or whether or not your diet fits your lifestyle. If we lack the ability to place these small facts in context, it may prevent us from developing comprehensive plans for our dietary health.
When I say we should pay less attention to individual studies on food, this is not a plea for ignorance; rather, there are simply more certain ways to improve your diet. We should not forget the well-documented positive effects that something as common-sense as eating more vegetables can have. Sometimes the conventional wisdom — avoiding excessive calories and eating a diverse number of nutrient sources — is sound but too often ignored. Focusing on eating a diet high in fiber alone represents a much sounder way to eliminate cancer risk than getting rid of “risky” foods.
Above all, it’s important to remember that health advice should rarely be an all-or-nothing thing. Each individual has different dietary needs, which means we can develop diets that are right for us. If done with a proper sense of balance and a reliance on established nutritional research, one can find many ways to improve the way they’re eating. What this usually means is that you can have your chocolate and coffee and Nutella, just as long as you don’t have too much.