Finding the balance between science and intuition

Never before have we been so bombarded with such conflicting scientific evidence about nutrition. It is this evidence that often drives national guidelines and also our own personal food choices. The scientist in me is always alive, as is the holistic practitioner. The two of them being at peace when it comes to nutrition is not always an easy feat.

Allow me to share my internal battle.

Let’s take fats, for example. How many theories have we heard? How much confusion is out there surrounding this nutrient? It would be fair to say that the general public’s view on fats is simple: they’re bad.

In the 1950s, scientist Ancel Keys published results from his Seven Countries Study that showed a nearly perfect correlation between the amount of fat in the diet and deaths from heart disease.

Crucial data was left out of Key’s findings. Had he have picked other countries, the opposite correlation would have been shown. That is, the more fat, the less heart disease (Gillespie, 2012)

Nevertheless, Key’s findings sparked what would continue as the war on fats. He suggested that a diet rich in saturated fats (found in animal products) lead to higher levels of blood cholesterol and in turn, higher levels of heart disease.

Fast-forward half a decade or so and here we are: our supermarket shelves touting low fat as a selling tool and food-like substances are proliferating at an incredible pace.

Margarine and seed oil spreads are perfect examples of replacing a whole food (butter) with highly processed alternatives. These spreads contain little or no saturated fat (supposedly a plus). They start out as liquid ‘vegetable oils’ and have to undergo so much processing that trans fats (the worst kind of fats, being shown to raise inflammation) are often produced. Not to mention the fact that they are very high in omega-6 fats, the type that is pro inflammatory when consumed in excess. This has negatively shifted the balance with our omega-3 fats; the ones that reduce inflammation.

Ironically inflammation is a known key driver of heart disease.

I hope I haven’t lost you.

Many more studies have attempted to shed light on the link between fat and health/disease with varying results. Recently, a Cambridge study challenged this long standing nutrition paradigm, stating that there is no conclusive evidence that links saturated fat intake and heart disease.

For me, it’s hard not to get excited by such findings (it’s what holistic practitioners have believed for a long time!). It’s nice that in this instance the data swings towards what I inherently believe.

However, it is difficult for science to prove causal relationships when it comes to food (that is, that one dietary component causes a specific outcome). One of the reasons for this is that we don’t eat single foods or nutrients; we have a dietary pattern, and it’s difficult to isolate one component and link it to health or disease.

Such a reductionist approach is not holistic at all. We need to look at dietary patterns as a whole, together with lifestyle factors (stress is a huge factor in heart disease) as well as the quality of the food (for example, grass fed meat is not the same as grain fed meat). Science cannot always adjust for all of these variables.

Furthermore, we now know that there is so much more to the story of heart disease than simply saturated fats and cholesterol.  Sugar, obesity and of course inflammation (from stress, smoking and processed foods) are key players.


My point? I do have one.

Does it make sense that an overly simplified theory survived for so many years, and so strongly drove our nutrition choices, only to be so radically challenged decades later? What damage have we done in the meantime?

I don’t think we will ever go too wrong if we use our intuition and eat real food that is unprocessed and thoughtfully sourced. Sometimes the science will support this, but sometimes it won’t. And often there will be very convincing evidence for two very different theories.

If we were to continue to follow the science (or trends), we would be eating high protein one day and the next day reading that a high protein diet accelerates ageing and is linked to cancer (in rats). One day we would be eating nine serves of grains, only to go grain-free the next. One day we’d go Paleo and the next day vegan.

It’s likely that the evidence will always swing both ways and we need to decide ‘how much science we let into our food’.

My solution?

Use your intuition
Eat real food
Say no to fake food
Don’t over eat
Think quality before quantity (real food is more satisfying, so you’re less likely to overeat it)
Source your food thoughtfully (local, ethical, organic, sustainable)
Eat your veggies (lots of them!)
Find balance and moderation

It doesn’t need to get complicated, because it’s actually quite simple…