On “Scientific Research”

I don’t claim to be a “health nut”, but I like to eat healthy barring the occasional indulgence. Whether it’s reducing the consumption of refined grains or adding more fruits and vegetables to my diet, nutrition is a priority. This means reading up on the health section of the news to keep abreast of the latest developments.

I suppose I inherited this quality from my father who obsessively follows research in the health and medical fields. But, lately, I find myself very confused. The following will illustrate why. My family hails from the coast. Coconut is an integral part of our diet primarily because it is natively grown and abundantly available. Whether it’s grated coconut, coconut paste or coconut milk, almost every dish, savoury or sweet incorporates it. Coconut oil has traditionally, also, been the preferred choice for deep frying, saut√©ing or, even, as a dressing. In other words, the way Mediterranean cuisine uses olive oil is how we used coconut oil. I say “used” because this is no longer true. The reason was some research about thirty years ago which stated that coconut oil is very high in cholesterol and terrible for heart health. When my father picked up on this, the consumption of coconut oil in our home dropped drastically. We switched to alternatives for a lot of preparations. Now, almost three decades later, coconut has become the new superfood with ringing endorsements of coconut oil. The jury is still out, however, with some touting it as a panacea and others calling it “poison”.

It doesn’t stop there. Breakfast is a topic that invites contradictory opinions from the scientific community. Some call it vital while others say it’s dangerous. All of these people are scientists with exemplary credentials holding positions of importance in regulatory bodies and academia. For the consumer though, whom or what to believe, that is the question.

I am no scientist, but I wonder how such contradictory results are possible on the same¬†topic. This resulted in my own bit of research. Here are some findings. To begin with, independent studies are few and far in between. A lot of these studies are funded by big industries to malign a rival product so that its consumption drops and, then, promote their own as a “healthier” option. The results are biased in favour of the industry or lobby that sponsors it. Sometimes, the purpose is to hide the ill-effects of their product by exaggerating the so-called “hazards” of another. A case in point is how the sugar industry funded a study in the 1960s to highlight the contribution of fats to heart disease and downplay the role of sugar. This was only discovered as recently as 2016. The fact that this was hidden from the general public for about half a century is a cause of concern. And, when reputed organisations claim that something is dangerous, it is natural for people to think twice about what they eat.

Sometimes, the number of participants in a study is in single digits. How, then, can the results be applied to the general population? No wonder terms like “may” or “could” are frequently used in the title so that if the findings are debunked tomorrow, they are covered and can shirk all responsibility.

In my opinion, there is another factor to be considered – genetics. Studies are often carried out on a specific section of the populace in a particular region. Olive oil, for instance, is healthy and highly recommended. I don’t dispute this. Food habits, at least the traditional kind by which I don’t mean McDonalds or KFC, are cultivated based on crops favoured by the soil and climate. Olive oil is a product of the Mediterranean. People who reside there have consumed it for centuries, and their digestive systems have adapted to it. When it is promoted in Asian countries where other oils are more common, will the results be the same? The same applies to coconut oil which has, only recently, been adopted by the west.

Superfood is the new buzzword in the health industry. The minute something is categorised as such, people rush to buy it. Sometimes, in the quest for health, the consumption of these products gets out of hand. People don’t realise that sometimes too much of a good thing can be counterproductive. Another thing that skyrockets is the price. If you don’t believe me, check the cost of a product when a study declares that it is the best thing for you. Everyday items become unaffordable when they are branded “healthy”. When prices shoot up, you wonder whether it is because of the demand, or sellers trying to make a quick buck out of the next “superfood”.

As health conscious individuals, we are always seeking ways to make our lives better by adopting good eating practices. However, we unwittingly end up playing into the hands of lobbies whose only objective is financial gain. We, all, need to be careful about what we decide to consume based on what is termed as “scientific research”. In a world where business often takes precedence over public health, there are reasons to be wary. Beyond headlines, there are a lot of things that need to be considered with studies about health and nutrition. Sources, researchers, industries, sample sets and target populations are just a few. Because I am not sure what to believe, I have stopped taking these headlines seriously. Consume everything in moderation is one piece of advice that has persisted over time. And, for now, it seems like the sensible thing.

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