Finding Common Ground for Nutrition in a World of Alternative Facts

by Rachel Baer

Rachel Baer tackles the implications of the “post-truth” culture for the nutrition profession and poses 3 questions to consider about our response to the unending barrage of nutrition-related “alternative facts.”

As a registered dietitian, I can tell you this: Nutrition professionals know a thing or two about alternative facts. We spend our careers with textbooks and scientific journals in hand, waiting for the next misinformed food fad to go viral. We fight to defend the facts because we have always believed that if we could show people what is true, we could convince them that we have the best answers for their nutrition-related questions. But the concept of truth is losing popularity.

The Oxford English Dictionary declared the term “post-truth” to be the 2016 word-of-the-year. Post-truth is defined as “related to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Let that sink in for a moment: emotional appeals are more influential than objective facts. While this concept is alarming on many levels, I am particularly concerned about its implications for health professionals who rely on scientific truths as the basis of their credibility.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the frustration people feel as they watch seemingly contradictory nutrition headlines emerge at the very hint of new research findings. One day people are told to limit egg consumption to 3 yolks per week, the next, the one-yolk-per-day allowance is back. However, as nutrition professionals, we have a certain appreciation for the fact that science is ever-evolving. We hold our recommendations lightly because we believe in a scientific community that is always growing, and that new discoveries only sharpen our understanding of nutrition and physiology. The public, on the other hand, does not always share this appreciation.

Confusion over wavering nutrition claims is exacerbated by the inundation of un-credentialed, unschooled voices clamoring for attention in popular media. Social media has provided a proverbial soapbox for anyone with a passionate message to share, regardless of qualifications. Simultaneously, dietitians tend to hold back on making bold retorts, often waiting for consensus to catch up with the fads so that our recommendations are supported with the latest research. This seeming imbalance of voices alongside the emergence of the post-truth culture only perpetuates the proliferation of unfounded claims, or “alternative facts,” as they have become popularly known.

I have no easy answers for this predicament, but here are 3 questions that we could benefit from exploring as nutrition professionals:

1. How do we remain experts while also being compelling?

Dietitians have long been referred to as the “food police.” While I resent this reputation, it highlights a worthy question: Do nutrition professionals present information in a way that is relatable, realistic, and winsome to the people whose respect we want to gain?

We can no longer depend solely on the letters after our names to gain an audience with the public, particularly when we are pitted against wayward blog and media influencers using sensationalized language to win over vast groups of people who blindly follow their passionate advice. The internet is full of examples of people preferring to follow the advice of a persuasive friend or influencer over the advice of a knowing professional. While this situation is endlessly frustrating to those of us who see through their hyperbolic messages, is there anything we can learn from these blog/media personalities that may help us reach the audience they seem to have hooked? How do we successfully build rapport with the public while maintaining good science?

2. How do we talk about fundamentals in a world that wants controversy?

Let’s face it. Fundamentals don’t make great headlines. For decades, consensus research has revealed that a diet full of minimally-processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, lean proteins, and healthy fats is unequivocally and unanimously the best diet for human health. Yet, people still search elsewhere looking for the latest and greatest weight-loss, risk-reducing, and health-enhancing diets. Could it be that balance is more challenging than we thought? Perhaps avoiding certain food groups or food ingredients altogether is easier than the amorphous concept of moderation? Our greatest challenge is not getting more people to consume health information, it is finding new and compelling ways to deliver the information we’ve known for decades, and this is no small task.

3. How do we overcome differences within the nutrition profession to present a united front to people lost in the sea of alternative facts?

In 2014, David Katz and Walter Willet co-chaired a conference sponsored by the non-profit Oldways*, titled “Finding Common Ground.” Oldways and the co-chairs assembled what they referred to as “the dream team of nutrition experts,” including Friedman’s own, Dariush Mozaffarian, as well as Dean Ornish, creator of the Ornish Diet; David Jenkins, founder of the glycemic index; Boyd Eaton, originator of the Paleolithic diet; Collin Campbell, author of The China Study; and a myriad of others. Known most commonly for their differences, this group of scientists gathered together for the sole purpose of coming to a consensus on the basic tenants of a healthy diet. In the end, the group agreed on 11 common denominators of the widely differing philosophies they espouse. The topics ranged from fruit and vegetable consumption, to sustainability, to food literacy.

Following the conference, David Katz published an article in Forbes where he said “…it is the controversies at the edge of what we know that interest experts most, but ask [experts] about the fundamentals, and the vast expanse of common ground is suddenly revealed.” The Common Ground committee’s decision to gather around a table, invite open dialogue, and pursue unity is something we could all learn a lesson from. Alternative facts will always provide fodder for hucksters and peddlers of over-simplified nutrition information, but the scientific community has a vast body of research that unites us. As nutrition professionals, we cannot forget that our voices will always be more powerful together than they ever will apart.

Rachel Baer is a registered dietitian and a first-year in the NICBC program at Friedman. Her favorite foods are Brussels sprouts and brownies, and she loves nothing more than cooking great meals and gathering people around a table.

*Editor’s Note, 5/1/17  2:09 PM: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of the organization, “OldWays.” The correct spelling is Oldways, and the change has been made above.

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