You want to eat better
Recently I realized that I had been eating too many snacks and not planning my meals properly. I was feeling sluggish and tired. I needed to to take a step back and reconsider my food intake1.
There are many reasons why we might want to eat healthier food. First you need to consider what you are eating now. Some of the reasons you might want to know more about your habitual consumption of food and drink:
You’ve decided to start exercising more and want to eat food to support your physical activity.
Your physician has recommended that you change your diet because of high blood pressure.
You want to know if the food you eat regularly is providing the nutrients you need.
In this article, I am not linking to examples of dietary information. I found too many of the articles written for a general audience were unreliable and didn’t follow the guidelines I explain below.
What to Eat
When I realized that I was snacking too much, I leaned into my knowledge of nutritional science and checked with WebMD2 or Mayo Clinic3. I know from this that I needed to eat more fresh fruit and cook more meals that contained protein, fat, and vegetables. As I am vegetarian, I eat a lot of pulses: lentils and beans or tofu. I also eat a lot of nuts; mostly as snacks.
However, we can’t all study nutrition for three or four years to understand what we should eat for maximum health.
There are so many people happy to share their nutritional thoughts and advice on the internet. I tend to avoid those websites for my own sanity as they are often selling something, and it takes energy to read through and research what diet they are recommending.
My advice is to do your own research.
There are no short term healthy solution when it comes to nutrition, our health, and our diets, so watch out for people and websites selling the latest miracle cure.
If you see a video, tweet, TikTok, or blog post promoting nutritional advice, see who else supports or critiques that information.
Three Questions to Ask When Assessing Nutrition Information
If you want to know if nutrition information is reliable, ask yourself these three questions4:
Who is the information from?
What is missing?
How does it make you feel?
Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
Who is the information from?
As the American Institute for Cancer Research5 asks
“Who is the source of the information provided?”
Is the information provided by the author of the article? Check to see if they have the qualifications to understand the science they are discussing. Search for their bios and see who they are and if they are likely to understand what they have written.
The author might be a journalist or other interested person interviewing an “expert” or “reviewing” the literature. Always check if the expert is a doctor, scientist or a nutritionist. That is always a good start. Note if what they are saying is in their realm of experience. Similarly check that the literature is peer-reviewed and otherwise reliable6.
If the information is on a website that ends in [dot] gov or [dot] edu, they are more likely to share reliable information. As mentioned above, I trust WebMD and Mayo Clinic even though I find both tend to assume that weight loss is always a good thing for our health. One reason that these two sites are reliable is that their articles are often reviewed by experts and they provide sources for the information provided.
One big red flag for me is whether they are they selling anything that supports their information. A lot of diet sites are either selling supplements or their diet plan. I would be very cautious around any site that is directly making money off giving you advice.
What is missing?
Check the whole story, not the headline. Sometimes headlines are click-bait, designed to get your attention and the actual information doesn’t hold up. Additionally videos and pictures can be faked; this is especially true for before and after “weight loss” images.
Check back to previous information from the same person. Often when people learn new information, they may change their advice. Science is constantly changing and today’s research result may be disproven tomorrow. However, if they are constantly contradicting themselves, I wouldn’t trust anything they recommend.
Good medical and nutritional advice is explained so that most people can understand the information provided. Be careful of anything that “blinds you with science”. Reading an article or watching a video where I don’t understanding the links between a diet and the particular health condition it is supposedly treating is another huge red-flag.
See what other people are saying about the information provided. For example, a quick internet search will give you some idea of who has written about the diet in the past and what they said. For example, a quick search for “Grapefruit Diet7” shows a mixture of reviews and how-tos. Food advice that hasn’t been written about in the past by other people should be another red-flag not to trust that information.
How does it make you feel?
People make sensational claims to manipulate your feelings. If some one is promising you the moon, stars and sun in terms of the effectiveness of their nutritional advice - RUN!
No one food or diet will cure cancer, stop obesity, or prevent diabetes. Similarly, quick solutions are never the answer when it comes to nutrition as long term change is really the only way to make a difference.
Be very suspicious of throw away sensational statements without qualifications. “There is link between skin conditions and B12” was one I saw in an article promoting vegan diets. That was it!
Yeah! You can search out that information, but who would spend that extra time. Other than some one like me, that is.
I found an abstract of a review article that hinted at a link between excess B12 and skin conditions. The abstract says:
“Additionally, several dermatologic conditions, including vitiligo, aphthous stomatitis, atopic dermatitis, and acne are related to cobalamin excess or deficiency8.”
That doesn’t seem like a very strong link to me, especially given that vitamin B12 is a essential nutrient that is often lacking in vegan and plant-based diets. If you research each of those skin conditions and B12, not only do the first articles that come up have the terms “B12 deficiency”, many of them are about using B12 as a treatment for the condition.
There are a few research articles that discuss the link between acne and B12 supplementation. However, the main article I could find looked at five women taking supplemental vitamin B129. This one study isn’t enough to conclude that a regular intake of B12 from eating an omnivorous diet of animal and plant foods will give you acne.
I’m going to keep taking my B12 supplement. The risk of acne from the supplement is less than the risk of having B12 deficiency10.
To encourage myself back into health eating habits I bought lots of fruit and I have them in a bowl on my kitchen counter. I have carrots to eat raw and lots of nuts to snack on.
I hid the chocolate in a cupboard and I stopped buying potato chips. I’m still working on regularly cooking healthy meals as I find that I am still bored of what I am cooking. One of the challenges is that I had sinusitis which took away my sense of smell. Not Covid - I checked. What is most weird is that my taste is unaffected so I have to be careful not to add too much of a herb to match what I am smelling because then it tastes awful.
If you decide to change your food intake, accept that it is a long term change. One of the reason many people fail at sticking to a new diet is because they only see it as a short-term change.
To make permanent changes, set yourself little easily attainable goals such as eating one extra piece of fruit each day.
Consider how much effort you want to put in to achieve them. Do you really have the time and skills to cook a meal every night?
Take tips from James Clear’s Atomic Habits11 and rather than have the objective of eating healthily or of losing so many pounds, become the kind of person who eats fruit and vegetables every day.
Once you have decided who you want to be, set up your environment to achieve that by putting lots of fruit in a bowl so it is handy. At the same time, hide away the highly processed starchy foods so they are hard to reach.
Don’t worry if you skip a day. Just start again the next day.
I often have to reset and check that I have eaten my fruit and vegetables first. Oh! I just ate a chocolate bar. No problem, I will eat an orange next time, and then I place the orange ready on a plate with a knife.
I accept that this is a life time of change.
Most of all, have fun. Find joy in your new eating habits. Food should never be a chore.
If you found this information useful and have any questions that aren’t dietary advice please
I write about the intersection of food science and food systems with an emphasis on food safety, food justice and resilience. I am concerned that climate disasters and changing weather patterns are affecting our ability to eat healthy nutritious food.
I run a food safety consultancy, Food Safety Mid Atlantic, which I started in 2018 to support small and mid sized food businesses with food safety and product development. I support clients to develop a robust food safety program and to scale up their businesses while allowing them to maintain integrity with their values.
My primary goal is to support my clients so they make food at cost that is safe, tasty and compliant with federal, state, and local regulations.
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There is some confusion with the word diet. Diet refers to the food and drink that we regularly consume as well as referring to a regime of eating to either lose weight or to treat an illness. While it might seem long-winded, in this article I will [attempt] to just use “diet” as a regime of eating to lose weight or treat an illness.
These three questions should be asked when assessing all information and were adapted from: