Nutrition: Some controversies and debates

Saturday, 18 January 2014 - 11:36am IST | Agency: DNA

Nutrition is an exciting and interesting topic for many but it can be pretty frustrating at times with trends and beliefs changing constantly. In a way it is helpful when multiple researches provide informative data for eating healthy but the studies sometimes become either conflicting or controversial. One day you read an article about how oil is bad and eating fat-free food should be the way of life. But then a few months later you’re told that some oils are actually good for your health. This type of conflicting information can be extremely annoying.

But why does this really happen? Is the subject of nutrition really all that hard to figure out? Well it’s certainly not an easy topic but neither is it rocket science. It is the wide-spread interest in nutrition that hypes up even a small bit of research to create a stir before that study gets further validated. In this article I have tried to cover a few such controversial topics that have seen a u-turn (or two!).

Cholesterol We all have kept our safe distance from cholesterol in food. It wasn’t clear to what extent dietary cholesterol raised blood cholesterol levels but the current conclusion is that it’s actually trans fats (artificially processed fat from naturally occurring oils through hydrogenation) that raises blood cholesterol more than the dietary cholesterol. Processed foods made with hydrogenated trans fats are the major cause for coronary heart diseases and high lipid levels and not the cholesterol containing foods. You’re way better off eating shell fish (which has cholesterol) than processed food that contains artificially hydrogenated anything.

Coconut Oil Long ago researches had termed all fats as evil. Sadly, many people still equate fats and oils with weight gain and clogged arteries. Thankfully, substantial research has helped conclude that certain fats are essential. In fact, some help to burn fat and prevent cardiac diseases. The successful distinction between fats (such as saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) has further provided information to exactly know which fats are harmful and helpful. Though saturated fats have been largely controversial in the harmful list of fats (such as coconut oil), revisiting earlier studies has proven that it is hydrogenated coconut oil which is the culprit. In the current times, coconut oil is considered to be a superfood which helps in burning fat and extra virgin coconut oil is a stable saturated fat that does not raise your cholesterol levels. Or imagine, wouldn’t the entire population of South India be cardiac patients?

Egg yolk Yolks have gotten a pretty bad rep in recent years because one contains about 200mg of cholesterol. People worrying about their cholesterol levels have shut their kitchen doors on yolks. The pendulum on eggs being good or bad has been swinging to and fro every few years. As I mentioned above, the current evidence significantly claims that cholesterol in food is not directly proportional to cholesterol in the blood stream, but before the clock begins to swing again, let moderation be the key. An egg yolk a day cannot be disastrous.

Sugar substitutes Before we jump to controversial side effects of sweeteners causing memory loss and cancer, it’s important to understand what exactly they are. It’s basically any sweet substance other than table sugar (sucrose). There are artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, etc), sugar alcohols (xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, etc.), natural sweeteners (date sugar, honey, fruit juices, etc) and novel sweeteners (like stevia). It is the artificial sweeteners (especially aspartame) that have been getting the most negative reports.

However, according to the latest reports aspartame is safe for consumption with an acceptable daily intake (40mg/kg of body weight per day). A typical diet drink contains 180mg of aspartame.

One would need to drink 15 cans of a diet soft drink to exceed the acceptable limit. We have swung back and forth on sweeteners and side effects and many have chosen the path of not consuming them at all (which is fine), but unless you are allergic or sensitive to a certain sweetener, a little amount in some candies or sodas will not be life threatening. Of course, as with all chemicals, too much of it can cause trouble.

Salt Since urbanisation and malady following our fast-paced lifestyle, we have been repeatedly advised to lower our salt intake. But a new set of data has emerged claiming going ultra low on salt intake (less than 1500mg) may not be beneficial. However, this is one finding which needs a lot of more research. There is no denial on the fact that low sodium diets are an important strategy for controlling blood pressure and complications preceding it. So let’s not get carried away as of yet. With the kind of food we eat today we tend to consume too much anyway.

Caffeine  Complicated! Caffeine has been associated with elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, anxiety, poor sleep and digestive issues. Thus the advice has been to limit or avoid caffeine. It was even banned by the World Anti Doping Agency and got re-introduced in the non-prohibited list after 2004. Recently, caffeine has been shown to improve muscle coordination, strength (if consumed pre-exercise), increase energy expenditure and possibly help in burning calories. So it appears as though there are at least some benefits of caffeine! One cannot deny side-effects of caffeine, but a cup of coffee to kick start your day cannot be damaging.

Fortunately, while studies may give different data about a particular nutrient, the value of a healthy diet is not in doubt. The bottom line remains unchanged, that good food choices have a positive impact on health and poor diets have negative long-term effects. It’s up to us to stay informed, but before jumping to conclusions we owe it to ourselves to consider the source and run the ideas through our common sense filter.

Nothing can ever be proved from one article or one study. The only really authentic nutrition advice comes from research that has found consistent results over many, many years. These types of research are abundant but you don’t hear about them often (because, it’s just not as exciting to feature).

Nutrition is evolving, and it’s as much an art as it is a science. Besides, there’s far more to it than what one imagined upon hearing the word. Being in the field I am conscious of what advice to give and wouldn’t provide any information that I’d end up having to rescind few months later.

A steady-as-she-goes approach that works for everyone as a start means:
Don’t begin cooking in coconut oil tomorrow

Don’t load up on caffeine to burn fat

Don’t exceed a yolk a day

Don’t buy everything that is “sugar-free”

And keep the salt shaker at bay

I acknowledge that research and debate in nutrition is quite sensitive and there are always conflicting views. The reason for writing this article is not to discredit any research or a counterview, it is just to highlight that nutrition is evolving. And the key to a healthy lifestyle is very simple: eat fresh foods, avoid processed foods, follow moderation in everything and do what’s right for you and your body. As I always say, (almost) nothing is bad for you and (almost) nothing will kill you. Provided you stick to reasonable quantities.

Stay Healthy!


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