Why I Think Nutrition Is a Grey Area

December 18, 2015

From all the reading I’ve done about nutrition facts, and all the different regimes I’ve tested out for myself, and all the people and experts I’ve spoken with, one thing has become crystal clear for me:

Nutrition will always be a grey area.

This doesn’t this mean I’ve given up trying to understand nutrition, or that I just need to do more research until I know all that needs to be known. On the contrary, the grey area is a place I have settled into; it’s exactly where I want to be when I make choices about nutrition.


As humans, we are pre-designed to be suspicious of unknowns and to avoid ambiguities. This design shows up in virtually every arena of our life: in small day-to-day things, like how we drink our coffee the same way every day; or in bigger things, like the fear of change that oftentimes causes us to remain in unhealthy situations – be they personal or professional.

Nutrition is no different. We want to believe that there is one way that we should eat, that we are capable of discovering it, and then subsequently following it. This doesn’t just apply to so-called “healthy” eaters, either – even if you don’t think you’re following a certain way of eating, in fact the opposite is true: everything about what ends up on your plate follows a design that you are resistant to changing, regardless of how cognizant you are of that design.

The problem with being too steadfastly committed to one single dietary doctrine is that you become closed off to alternate perspectives and can get caught in a rut of thinking. It’s the same reason why, when forming an argument for an essay, the author must read many different sources and bring those sources together to form an argument.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t have a certain set of nutrition beliefs. There are things about nutrition I’ve read and experienced firsthand that guide my choices because I believe them more than others. But what I’m resistant to is following one set of beliefs and ignoring evidence that I come across as false simply because it’s contrary to my beliefs.

Instead, I try to keep my nutrition beliefs hovering around the grey area, rather than getting stuck in black and white absolutes. This means that I’m open to alternatives, to being challenged by others, and ultimately, to maintaining my health.

Common Belief-Ruts about Nutrition We Get Caught In

Doctors and nutritionists have all the answers.

I’m no nutritionist, nor am I a doctor, but I can say with confidence that the “expert” and “proven-by-science” knowledge on nutrition that the professionals offer is not necessarily accurate simply by virtue of their status as an expert.

Consider that, like any educational curriculum, what professionals learn about diet is a slow-moving body of knowledge that is subject to bureaucratic red tape, scientific bias, and a whole lotta people who want you to eat a certain food because they stand to make money off it.

There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen influencing what we deem as “healthy,” and the professionals are not immune to this influence.

An alternative diet is the “secret” to health.

On the flipside of the coin, “alternative” diets – which are also referred to as “fad” diets by those who wish to minimize their validity – should also be approached with the same kind of skepticism. This isn’t to say that they aren’t based on facts or scientific knowledge; on the contrary, I’ve read alternative diet books and they are backed by some pretty convincing science.

And that’s the problem right there. They ALL have a very convincing scientific train of thought running through them. Keep in mind that the goal of the creator of the alternative diet is to gain a following and sell more books. This doesn’t mean their arguments are invalid, it just means that it’s important to consider that monetary profit is a variable that can affect even the most unbiased of science experiments.

Food is either healthy or unhealthy.

There are two different nutrition schools of thought duking it out at the moment: one holds a low-fat (and subsequently high-carb) diet is the key to health (e.g., the Canada Food Guide), while the other believes full-fat and low-carb is the healthier choice (e.g., the Paleo Diet). As a result,  foods that the Canada Food Guide would call “healthy” are in fact “unhealthy” according to the Paleo Diet, and “healthy” Paleo foods are conversely “unhealthy” according to the Food Guide.

For example:

The Canada Food Guide would consider these foods healthy, while Paleo would deem them unhealthy:

  • Fruit juice
  • Whole grains
  • Flavoured yogurt
  • Breakfast cereals, oatmeal
  • Trail mix, granola bars
  • Skim milk
  • Vegetable oil

And vice versa, the following foods are healthy according to Paleo, and unhealthy according to Canada’s Food Guide:

  • Eggs (yolk included)
  • Organic butter
  • Coconut oil
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Red palm oil

Generally speaking, I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the Canada Food Guide, but I’m also not convinced that the Paleo diet is the more “natural” way we are meant to eat – even though the “eat like a caveman” narrative “makes sense” when I think about it (the Canada Food Guide also used to “make sense” to me at one point also).

Which leads me to this nutrition rut:

But, it’s scientifically proven and makes sense logically.

Even if nutrition science seems to follow logic in our imagination, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s correct.

The calories in = calories out tenet is a prime example of something that makes sense logically, but which is in fact misleading. The idea follows that maintaining a healthy weight is a matter of creating an equilibrium between the amount of calories you eat and the amount of calories your body uses. However, what it doesn’t account for is that our bodies react differently to certain types of calories: if for lunch you eat 1000 calories of potato chips your body would respond differently than if you eat 1000 calories of salad.

It’s not totally off base: if you eat more calories than your body requires, you will gain weight. But when we start to treat our body as a math equation, we start to think that we can eat a plate of junk food for dinner, and then go to the gym and “burn those calories off.”

That’s just not how the body works.

When it comes to scientific research, keep in mind that science has a notoriously difficulty time studying human behaviour. While it’s easy to study the immediate effects of food on the human body, it’s difficult to get clear answers from long-term studies. The way a human acts when she is simply going about her day-to-day is much different than how she acts if she knows she is being studied – which automatically skews the results.

Science can also easily be shaped and manipulated, or certain facts (which disprove an argument) can easily be ignored – especially when money is involved and someone stands to gain from a certain finding.

While I don’t think we should discard studies on nutrition, I also think we should be critical and skeptical of them. Take them with a grain of salt.

You’re either Paleo (or vegan, or gluten-free, etc.) or you’re not.

Just because I’m not vegan, or because I’m not Paleo, or because I try to minimize gluten, doesn’t mean I can’t read about these diets, experiment with the food, or gain anything from the health benefits associated with them. Our tendency to think in black and white means that sometimes we dismiss alternatives because we can’t commit wholeheartedly to them.

It’s also important not to assume that one way of eating is normal (i.e., the standard Western diet), while another is alternative. The Inuit peoples, for example, survived for centuries on a diet primarily made up of whale fat – and they did so without becoming obese, or developing heart disease and diabetes.

While it can be tempting to settle into black and white approaches to nutrition, I say commit to the grey area – which is a non-commitment of sorts. As a result, you will be more open to everything the nutrition community has to offer. While I try to avoid settling into absolutes, here’s a handful of my personal nutrition beliefs – ones that inform what I choose to put on my plate:

  • Choose whole foods
  • Choose green, leafy, high fibre foods
  • Avoid refined sugar when possible
  • Favour low-carb foods
  • And break these rules sometimes

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