EnlightenU Nutrition Consulting, LLC

Enlightening You about Food and Nutrition

Leave a comment

How to Spot Fake Nutrition News and Find Credible Sources You Can Trust

People love to share nutrition information, and everyone seems to be a nutrition expert these days! Unfortunately, a lot of what we see in the media or hear people talking about is inaccurate and/or misleading. Some of this is relatively harmless. However, for some people, this contributes to confusion and unnecessary anxiety about food choices and sets consumers up to believe that there is a “perfect, correct and right” food, beverage or supplement for them to achieve their nutrition, performance, weight, or health goals.

Misinformation about food and eating often leads to people eliminating perfectly nutritious (and enjoyable) foods from their diet and many of my clients – casual exercisers and elite, competitive athletes, midlife women and those with a history of dieting or disordered eating – are easy prey for marketers who want to sell products or services to enhance sports performance, gain or lose weight, and/or “get healthy” – often with unsubstantiated claims.

Image Source: Shutterstock.com

To help you sort through the chatter and find credible, evidence-based nutrition information, here are 6 tips to help you spot misinformation.

1. Recommendations that promise a quick fix. When a person or product makes claims that sound too good to be true, it probably is. For example, per the following magazine cover suggesting that you can “lose 10 pounds in 7 days” – not only is this unlikely, but one should be concerned if you are losing that amount of weight in just a week (no matter what your starting weight is).

Also, recognize that break-throughs in science do not happen overnight or by just one individual or a single research lab.

2. Learn to distinguish hype from evidence-based science. Does the advertisement or nutrition information include fear-based words or dramatic statements (i.e.  “break-through”, “miracle”, “toxic”, “bad”, “cure-all”) to influence you one way or another about a food or product? Claims about juice cleanses and detox supplements, for example sway consumers into believing that a single nutrient (versus your overall dietary pattern) will cure or solve your health or weight concerns. Abby Langer, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, writes quite frequently about fad diets and nutrition trends and provides a great resource to learn more. Check out this ONE on the celery juice diet.

3. Are claims supporting the product based on personal stories rather than on facts? Be critical of anecdotal information from friends, coaches, and celebrities who have no formal training in nutrition. Ask questions about recommendations to understand if the reported benefits are backed by rigorous scientific research. 

4. When a claim is based on research, consider the following questions. Did the headline or article capture the actual results of the study or do we have a case of a journalist who didn’t read past the abstract and/or wrote a sexy headline as “clickbait?” Has the study been replicated with same or similar results among different researchers? How many humans were used in the study (or were animals used)? Is there a direct cause and effect for the population the claim is targeting? For example, a study that demonstrates prunes has a positive effect on bone health in postmenopausal women does not necessarily mean that a 20-year old male or premenopausal female athlete would experience the same benefit. Nothing wrong with eating prunes, but we can’t assume prunes are going to have the same effect with these other populations. And…per this particular study outcome, another important question to ask is whether study results were due to “association” or “causation.” Consider the data supporting the facts that: a) more people eat ice cream in the summer months, and b) more people drown in the summer months. It appears that there is an association between summer, eating ice cream and people drowning, but can we conclude that eating ice cream increases your risk of drowning? Probably not!

Photo credit: phdcomics.com

5. When considering products, such as special foods or supplements, are you aware of the products’ safety, purity or effectiveness? Manufacturers of dietary supplements must list all ingredients on the product label; however, a dietary supplement may contain a banned substance not listed due to poor manufacturing practices or intentional adulteration. Furthermore, some supplement ingredients may interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications resulting in adverse effects that can be life threatening. Consumers also need to be cautious of supplements that contain very high amounts of performing-enhancing ingredients, i.e. caffeine, citrulline or beta-alanine, that are not illegal, but in high doses may cause unwanted side effects such as increased blood pressure, jitteriness, or itchy tingling skin (in the case of beta-alanine). Many consumers believe that “even if a supplement or herbal remedy may not help me, it, it at least won’t hurt me.” However some ingredients, including vitamins and minerals, consumed in high doses for a long enough period of time, can be a concern.

Despite the FDA demanding companies stop selling these products…

HCG products remain marketed and sold to consumers!

The best way to protect yourself against questionable health and nutrition products is to be an informed consumer. Third party companies, such as NSF, Informed Choice or Consumer Lab, conduct testing to verify product ingredients. You may also contact the manufacturer directly to ask questions about how it tests for safety or if there are ingredients that aren’t listed on the label.

6. What are the person’s qualifications? Just because someone “went through something” does not make them an expert. Dig a little deeper and ask for credentials. Many states explicitly define that the practice of nutrition and dietetics must be done by a licensed professional. Look for the initials “RDN or LDN” to identify a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist. For athletes, look for the initials “CSSD” that designates a Registered Dietitian who has specialized training in sports nutrition. To find a sports dietitian in your area, access “Find a SCAN RD” at http://www.scandpg.org.

In addition, to an individual’s credentials, following are tips to help you navigate information found on various media sources. While the internet can be a minefield for misinformation, it can also be a valuable source of accurate and reliable information. Websites ending in .edu (an educational institution), .gov (government agency), or .org (non-profit) are considered good sources for credible information or to verify nutrition information read elsewhere.  

When reading nutrition material in books, magazines or other publications, look at who wrote the article you are reading. The author should be educated in the field of nutrition/dietetics and preferably hold a degree in nutrition from an accredited university. With any nutrition recommendations, beware of personal bias and when reading an article or blog, look for current and up-to-date citations with research that meets the criteria for point #4.

Be a critical thinker!

Finally, be a critical thinker when it comes to information about nutrition or your health. Frankly, the words “health” and “wellness” have been hijacked by the multi-billion dollar diet industry making it essential for all of us to be smart and responsible consumers. If you find yourself fixated or obsessed with reading articles (or watching health/food documentaries), consider the following:

Why do you think you are so interested in this information – rather than just dismissing the sensationalized content and reading/watching something with entertainment value?

What are you hoping to learn more about or are you feeling anxious about food/weight in general (and may need to address the anxiety and ruminating on these thoughts)?

Do you have difficulty anytime you hear or read nutrition information from a qualified health provider? For example, learning that “all foods fit” or “consuming sugar will not cause cancer or diabetes” but perhaps this challenges or disagrees with something you read or believe that says the contrary – why might this be happening for you? If someone told you that the earth was flat (with all kinds of their own research and reasons for their claims), would you  believe it? Why or why not?

Bottom line is that it may be a good idea to talk this out with a qualified nutrition professional and talk through all of these messages…and ultimately, maybe it would be helpful to avoid “googling” and binge-watching food documentaries and enjoy something more pleasure-oriented. For the health of it!

Leave a comment

The Role of Salt in the Athlete’s Diet

shutterstock_saltMany individuals are positively embracing the “good food revolution” that brings people back to relying on small farms for wholesome foods for their family and trying to prepare recipes from scratch while decreasing their intake of highly processed food. This is obviously a great idea for improving health and preventing many diseases.

However, for the active individual, an important nutrient may be missed in the process. Recently, a cyclist came to me struggling with stomach upset, exhaustion, cramps and occasional vomiting after trying to increase her distance. She has made positive attempts with improving her food intake and noted that previously she could ride for 1.5 to 2 hours with no problem. But, after trying to do a 4+ hour race, recognized something wasn’t right when she struggled with being able to finish the race. She wondered if she needed to increase her carbohydrate intake (which seemed impossible to her given the nausea she was experiencing)?  When asked about her fluid intake, she explained she drank a LOT of water along with a sports drink on her rides so didn’t believe she was dehydrated. What should she do?

Along with eating well, most athletes are aware of the need to stay well-hydrated and replace fluids lost due to sweat during exercise. However, the role of salt, or more correctly, sodium replacement is often overlooked resulting in muscle cramps, heat illness, inability to rehydrate after exercise, and an increased risk for hyponatremia (low blood sodium). And, for the recreational athlete who continues to improve their athleticism while eating “healthier” (most likely with reduced sodium intake), this risk becomes even more apparent.

Salt consists of sodium and chloride with sodium being a critical nutrient that the body needs to work properly and maintain fluid balance. However, many people believe that a high-sodium diet is always unhealthy, and indeed, The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that healthy adults limit their sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day (roughly the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of table salt). The average dietary sodium intake in the United States is estimated to be 3400 mg per day and chronic over-consumption of sodium can lead to health concerns, including high blood pressure, heart disease and/or kidney problems.

Although the typical American diet contains more sodium than is needed, this may not be true for every athlete. The amount of sweat loss during athletic activity can be significant, especially for those who practice or compete in hot or humid conditions, for a long duration, or over consecutive days.

A case of low sodium:

So, back to my cyclist hoping to compete in a 4 hour race – without cramps, nausea and vomiting. We discover that she loses about 2 pounds of body weight (so one liter of sweat) after an hour riding in hot, humid conditions. We also note that she is a “salty sweater” (evidenced by an accumulation of salt on skin or clothing after training).  Her sweat is estimated to have 1000 mg of sodium per 1 liter of sweat.  Therefore, during a 4 hour event she may lose over 4 liters of fluid which means her sodium losses could be almost 4,000 mg for the duration of the event.

If she were to follow the recommended guidelines of less than 2300 mg/day of sodium, her intake would be insufficient to replace what she lost during the event. Additionally, if she consumed a large amount of water to replace fluid losses, she may very likely suffer from symptoms of hyponatremia (headache, vomiting, swollen hands and feet, confusion, restlessness and irritability).

Developing a sodium replacement strategy:

There is significant variation in both sweat rate and sweat sodium concentration among individuals making it difficult to recommend a guideline for fluid and sodium replacement that applies to everyone. Therefore, the following calculations may be helpful in estimating sodium needs based on average sweat concentrations.

1) Calculate a sweat rate: Weigh yourself before and after a 1-hour exercise session (accounting for fluid intake and urine output during this hour). One liter of sweat is equal to 2.2 pounds of body weight. It is not uncommon for athletes to sustain sweat rates of 1-2 L/hr in hot environments, or a 2 to 4 pound weight loss.

2) Estimate sodium needs: A liter of sweat contains, on average, about 1000 mg sodium (Sawka et al., 2007). Therefore, if an athlete loses 2 L of fluid per hour, the athlete would need to replace 2000 mg of sodium per hour of exercise.

3) Plan to replace sodium lost during exercise. During prolonged exercise lasting greater than 2 hours, consume sodium-rich foods and beverages at regular intervals. Foods and snacks high in sodium include pretzels, saltine crackers, tomato juice, pickles or pickle juice and broth (see table below). Sports drinks also contain sodium and may be used for fluid replacement instead of plain water; but typical sports drinks are more water than sodium and won’t protect against hyponatremia. Adding 0.5 tsp of table salt to each 32 fluid ounces of a sports drink will increase sodium concentration without adversely affecting taste or absorption.

sodium chart

4) Understand typical dietary sodium intake. Consider reading food labels to get an idea of your typical sodium intake, especially if following a vegan diet. Consuming sodium-containing foods (along with water) in the days before and after training is important to ensure adequate rehydration after exercise, which can only be achieved if the sodium lost in sweat is replaced along with the fluid lost.

5) Before increasing sodium intake, speak to a sports medicine doctor or dietitian. For those who have sustained a low sodium intake for a long period of time, such as for vegan eaters, increasing sodium intake slowly will be important to provide time for the body to adjust. Also, for those with high blood pressure or kidney problems, a dietitian can help you determine an intake appropriate for your overall health.