If there’s one pet peeve I have about nutrition, it’s the amount of self-professed experts out there. Maybe more than any other field, it seems everyone knows exactly what YOU need to improve your health and feels they have an obligation to share their invaluable insight.
Let me be clear on this. Just because you eat, doesn’t mean you’re a nutrition expert. You probably have other amazing talents/skills/knowledge, etc. that you can and should share with the world. Nutrition just isn’t one of them.
In Canada registered dietitians go through years of training (a 4 year university undergraduate degree PLUS a 1 year practicum) to acquire the knowledge they need to be able to prescribe and evaluate information about eating habits, dietary strategies and nutritional therapies. To assume that you’re qualified to give advice about what someone should eat because you read about a diet on the internet, or better yet, tried it yourself (or have a friend that did), is incredibly arrogant to say the least.
What brought on this latest rant? The other day I came across an article in our local expatriate magazine entitled “Healthy Eating in Egypt”. At first I thought this was great. They must have another dietitian in the neighborhood. Perhaps I could connect and start developing a bit of a network so I could begin to improve my job prospects over here?
Then I read the article.
It focused primarily on the benefits of eating organic foods, specifically why you don’t want to be exposed to pesticides/toxins found in conventional produce. The article stated that these pesticides can build up in the skin of fruits and vegetables and if consumed, are stored in body fat, which negatively affects your health. Of course it didn’t say how your health is impacted, but that was the author’s thesis. Here’s the kicker though – it was written by a university student in civil and environmental engineering.
Why you ask is there anything wrong with that advice? This may even be something you subscribe to. Well, the problem is the research doesn’t support the author’s position. Nutrition is not a religion. You can’t make recommendations to the public based on beliefs alone. There needs to be an evidence based approach when looking at any type of dietary prescription. This is what dietitians are trained to do.
Let’s take a quick look on the data examining the potential health benefits of eating organic foods. First off, many organic producers claim that organic produce contains more nutrients than conventional produce. The research on this is mixed at best. While there certainly have been some studies that show that organic foods contain higher amounts of various micronutrients, the majority show no differences at all. A recent systematic review (Dangour et al., 2009) published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that:
“there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods.”
Another potential benefit that organic food proponents often hang their hat on (as this author did) is the lack of pesticides used in organic farming. They say that this somehow translates into a healthier product. Note that when they say no pesticides are used, they actually mean that no synthetic pesticides are used. All farmers, organic or otherwise, utilize some type of pesticide to kill pests, bacteria and fungi to increase product safety and crop yields. Sure, these pesticides may be “natural”, but just because something is natural, doesn’t automatically guarantee that it’s “safer”.
Onto the question of whether or not the use of synthetic pesticides actually causes negative health effects? I suppose it all depends on the amount that you’re exposed to. For years there has been a scientific consensus that consuming high amounts of pesticide can be harmful to your health. This is why their use is highly regulated. In Canada, the amount of allowable pesticide residue in food products is regulated by Health Canada and strictly enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Basically it is illegal for producers to grow and sell food that have higher than acceptable amounts of pesticide residue. And note that this amount is set at a level MUCH lower than that known to produce negative health effects in humans.
Now in fairness, I have no idea how pesticide use is regulated in Egypt. I’m unable to find any information on this topic online and if my limited experience is any indication, it’s entirely possible the produce grown here contains more pesticide residue than it does in Canada. On the flip side though, we also don’t know how highly regulated the organic certifications are either, so it would by no means shock me if Egyptian organic farmers use products that would be considered unacceptable and/or unsafe by Canadian organic farming standards. Unfortunately, the article I’m referring to had no references regarding Egyptian pesticide use, so I have no idea if they got their information from legitimate sources or they were simply espousing their opinions. I suspect the latter.
The take home message is that going organic or not boils down to personal choice. I have no issue with someone choosing organic foods because they prefer the taste or because they don’t want to support the industrialization of our food system. Maybe they even think that researchers will eventually find a link between pesticides usage and our health? That’s totally fine. But please don’t convince yourself that there is currently a correlation between the consumption of non-organic foods and poor health outcomes. Any potential link is tenuous at best and will probably never be definitively proven. This was clearly not the message being presented in the article I’m referencing.
And that is why all of this is a problem.
People take advice like this from these so-called nutrition experts as fact. It results in misinformation being circulated amongst the public, which can make it extremely difficult for nutrition professionals to cut through all the bias a client may have when they are prescribing their advice. Its bad enough that we have food corporations and producers skewing the truth about the health benefits of their products, we certainly don’t need people with zero training or expertise adding to the confusion.
It’s particularly frustrating when celebrities like Gwenyth Paltrow or Elizabeth Hasselbeck advocate for extreme diets as they have a pulpit from which to reach the masses, but the truth is dietary advice from your “nutrition expert friend” can be just as harmful. Whether you choose to eat organic or non-organic may not be life threatening, but it will certainly impact your pocket book. And frankly, that’s not even the point. The truth matters and the public has the right to receive quality, accurate information from trained professionals, not beliefs from those posing as such.
So the next time you find yourself in a position where you could offer nutrition-related advice, unless you’re a nutrition expert – that is a legitimate one with recognized training and credentials -, please think twice. Do your part. Don’t contribute to the confusion.
Dangour A. D., Dodhia S. K., Hayter A., Allen E., Lock K., Uauy R. (2009). Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr 90(3): 680-685