Why is nutrition so confusing?

How to eat better and stress less about food, according to a GP

Posted by for Nutrition

You can find a post, paper or article online to support just about whichever diet or eating ideology you subscribe to. No wonder it’s all so bloody confusing – even Dr Rupy from The Doctor’s Kitchen finds it tough.

Anyone who’s ever looked for the answer to a nutrition or diet question online will know that the digital space is packed with contradictory information. One expert might tell you that going plant-based is the only way to protect against cancer, and the next post you come across will cite seemingly reputable information claiming that going meat-free can cause dementia. Carrots are too high in sugar for keto influencers, but a hero food for the raw vegans.

And it’s not just the people posting these things who don’t agree; for every study you find claiming the health benefits of a food, someone else could read the exact paper and come to a different conclusion, or find research to disprove its findings. 

Nutrition is confusing. It’s all very well listening to our bodies, but if we want to be the healthiest, strongest and happiest versions of ourselves, then we need to have a basic understanding of how food works, right?

Speaking at the launch of Nuffield Health’s Healthier Nation Index, Dr Rupy Aujla, GP and founder of The Doctors Kitchen podcast, puts a lot of the contradictory advice down to the fact that we, as humans, are “hardwired for three core things: procreation, social cohesion and community”.

“I think when people argue about diets online, it’s not really because they are wedded to the ideal body composition, it’s because they’re doing something that makes us deeply human,” Dr Rupy tells Stylist. That’s finding a tribe. And when we defend our tribe, we become aggressive. 

“When you compound that issue with imperfect information and nutritional studies, it just explodes because I could look at a study and come up with a completely different conclusion to someone else,” he says.

He also flags the fact that a lot of nutritional research is conducted using ‘imperfect tools’ such as food frequency questionnaires. If I asked you what you ate on Monday afternoon, how accurate would your answer be (unless you’re following a strict meal plan)? Few people can scientifically track or remember their food intake, yet we expect a high level of accuracy from these questionnaires that look at the responses from sometimes thousands of participants.

Because of that – and the capacity to make anything look good, reputable and authoritative on social media – it’s easy to be swayed by information that combines ideology and participant-led large-scale pieces of research. Nutrition isn’t complicated, Dr Rupy says, but it has become a kind of new religion for some people.

We can’t ignore the fact that diet culture and food anxiety can play a massive role in hardline nutritional ideology. Those of us who grew up surrounded by size zero thinspo or who got into fitness at a time when everyone was a bodybuilder looking to macro-count their way to amateur athlete status, know only too well how easy it is to fall down the well of ‘good nutrition’ – at the bottom of which is restriction and food phobia. 

How to eat healthily, according to Dr Rupy

Dr Rupy breaks down what healthy eating should look like with four very simple, actionable principles that are all about adding, rather than subtracting: 

  1. Eat plenty of plants
  2. Include quality fats
  3. Focus on fibre
  4. Keep meals colourful

What suits you may change over time, depending on the time of month, whether you’ve just had a child, are training for a marathon, entering the menopause or going through puberty. But fundamentally, food is there to be enjoyed and to fuel us through our lives. If we can crack the fundamentals, the rest may just fall into place.

Dr Rupy has partnered with Nuffield Health on the launch of their Healthier Nation Index and #Find5 campaign. Nuffield Health is encouraging everyone to Find Time For Your Mind, finding five extra minutes a day to focus on their mental wellbeing. 

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.