Is nutrition research a pseudoscience?

Illustration for article titled Is nutrition research a pseudoscience?

Everyone agrees "eating right" is a good idea – what we can't agree on is what the hell it means. (Whole wheat is now a healthy diet option or "probably killing you," depending on who you ask.) What does science have to say about good dietary habits? According to University of South Carolina researcher Edward Archer, not nearly enough.

In an opinion piece over at TheScientist, Archer – a researcher at the USC's Arnold School of Public Health and first author of a recently published study that scrutinizes the validity of close to four decades of American nutritional survey datahas some strong words for nutrition researchers, who he claims "must overcome pseudoscientific measures and self-interest to make progress in the fight against obesity":

We may be witnessing the confluence of two inherent components of the human condition: incompetence and self-interest. Nutrition has had many colossal and costly failures. The list of dietary components claimed to reduce cardiovascular disease (CVD), prevent cognitive decline, and/or fight cancer that were later refuted via clinical trials is extensive. And while the self-correcting nature of science necessitates failure, the vast majority of nutrition's failures were engendered by a complete lack of familiarity with the scientific method. This deficit is most apparent in the field's reliance on self-reports of diet. Such information, to which nutrition researchers assign numeric caloric values, is rife with bias, and without the ability to corroborate or falsify the reports, the data should be considered pseudoscientific—outside the realm of scientific research.

Moreover, nutrition research fails to control for well-known, empirically supported, and in many cases obvious confounders. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization have repeatedly determined that human food energy requirements should be estimated using total daily energy expenditure, and that physical activity and basal energy expenditure are the primary determinants of this measure. Yet nutrition research rarely measures any form of energy expenditure or quantifies physical activity. This failure has led to a plethora of results that are suggestive of multiple and often divergent explanations, thereby obfuscating the examination of diet-health relationships. Nowhere is this fact more evident than the field's inability to answer one simple question: What should we eat?


Quite the polemic. It bears mentioning that Archer's central thesis – that "the field's leaders choose to train their mentees to serve only their own professional needs—namely, to obtain grant funding and publish their research" – is a criticism that's been leveled at scientific research in general for ages, though apparently Archer finds nutritional researchers particularly guilty of this sin. Given the nebulous nature of food and fitness guidelines in general, is the field of nutrition research in need of a major overhaul? Read the rest of Archer's piece over at TheScientist. Check out his study over at PLoS ONE.

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Nutrition research is a not a pseudoscience; it's just a difficult science that's chock full of misinformation and dangerous nonsense (like skipping chemo in favor of a kale cleanse when you get cancer).

So basically, same as any other area of medical research.

Interesting article though.