If you’ve ever found yourself confused by ever-changing health and diet headlines, you’re not alone. Jackie London, MS, RD, CDN is the Good Housekeeping Nutrition Director and author of Dressing on the Side (and Other Diet Myths Debunked): 11 Science Based Ways to Eat More, Stress Less, and Feel Great About Your Body (Grand Central Life And Style). Here, she answers my questions on what makes diet myths so sticky and how to avoid the trap.
Jess Cording: Why do people get so sucked into believing diet myths?
Jackie London: The most pervasive myths all have the same unifying quality, which is that in order claim our health, we have to be something better than who we are RIGHT NOW. This translates into, “I am not enough.” Though the words themselves vary, the message is the same: Either you have to do something extremely difficult to achieve better health, or you have to have (social or financial) access to achieve better health. When you combine that with status and elevation—celebrity endorsements or celebrity endorsements or content platform, or an influencer’s enormous network—then the myth-machine goes wild (or, I guess I should say, viral).
Cording: In what ways is the approach to communicating nutrition information is important?
London: Scientific findings are only as good as their application to your everyday life. When nutrition recommendations divorce scientific outcomes from their real-life application—how to eat, what to eat, when to eat what types of foods, and why we’re eating in the first place—are examples of research outcomes whose data points are filtered through a simplified, highly isolated-from-reality-of-standpoint. Recommendations are translated as the same old sound bites that ring familiar to many of us: “Eat less fat;” “eliminate sugar,” and “you’re addicted to…” and allows these phrases to stay in our vernacular.
Cording: What are some of the biggest challenges in making evidence-based nutrition knowledge accessible?
London: Nutrition science is constantly evolving and not universally evaluated in humans. For a treatment to be systematically reviewed requires resources—time and money—and often a combination of clinical trials and epidemiology. These nuances and complexities are what make nutrition science susceptible to taking a scientific soundbite and turning it into a universal truth on a public platform.
Plus, it’s very easy to generalize one’s own personal experience and conflate it with fact—[think of self-proclaimed “experts” you see] on social media. Combine that with access to conflicting ideologies in the Information Jungle, information we’re currently experiencing, and it’s easier than ever to find ourselves inundated, confused and ultimately, isolated.
Cording: What’s a myth that makes you laugh?
London: The ones I find funniest all have to do with items that used to be considered condiments: Coconut oil, apple cider vinegar…Then there’s the most epic re-brand of our time: bone broth.
Cording: Which nutrition myth most needs to die?
London: I am (almost!) surprised that at this point we still see “detox,” “cleanse,” and even “jumpstart” everywhere. I feel like saying, “one more time, for the cheap seats in the back: As long as you have a functioning gut, liver, and kidneys, you’re always detoxing, every second, of every day.”
Your GI tract begins in your mouth, and from there, enzymes in your stomach and intestine digest and absorb the nutrients you need for use in your body, and excrete what you don’t need via your kidneys, liver, lower GI tract.
The liver eliminates anything deemed “toxin” (something we’ve consumed in excess of what we can actually use) and converts it into other compounds to be used elsewhere by your body. If the liver can’t use a compound for other organ systems or functions, it often is used to make bile, a substance that’s basically your metabolic “waste”—but with a very useful, specific function: It helps you absorb the nutrients you do actually need from the foods you eat. Your kidneys filter for the same purpose: Achieve balance (or in biology terms, homeostasis). What you don’t need after that you’ll get rid of it by going to the bathroom.
What your physical, emotional and financial health doesn’t need? Laxatives and diuretics in the form of tea-toxes or juices.
Cording: What do you wish everyone knew about nutrition or wellness?
London: In terms of food and health and how restrictive tendencies, thought processes and feelings of isolated powerlessness emerge, I want people think of anything “new,” “trendy” or “groundbreaking” this way: If something is designed to be temporary (e.g. diets), it will yield temporary results. We have to consider the health-promoting behaviors you think you can maintain for the rest of your life. It means getting comfortable with the idea that it won’t ever be “perfect” or “controlled”, and it doesn’t have to all-or-nothing. I recommend a little “conscious unfollowing” on social media to help you define your personal priorities, and the boundaries you need to keep them in place.