Barbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND
Communicating about risk? Ask AI to help with clarity and examples.
In the field of food and nutrition, a common point of confusion is the concept of risk. Much of our dietary guidance stems from the goal of reducing the risk for disease.
Headlines about risks related to our food, lifestyle choices, and more can be helpful, misleading, or risk being downright dangerous.
In last week’s post, we explored using AI to explain complex concepts. We also considered whether using AI could itself pose a risk.
Let’s employ Chat GPT to help us explain risk. We will seek clear answers that put the information into context for an audience.
What is risk?
Risk refers to the probability or likelihood of an event or action leading to an undesirable outcome or consequence. In other words, risk is a measure of the chance that something negative will happen. Risk can be influenced by various factors such as the environment, behavior, genetics, and exposure to different substances or situations. In many cases, risk is expressed as a percentage or a ratio, and it is often used in fields such as finance, insurance, health, and safety to help make informed decisions and manage potential negative outcomes.
What is an example of risk using food or nutrition?
An example of a risk related to food or nutrition is the consumption of a diet that is high in saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and salt, which can increase the risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some types of cancer.
On the other hand, a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases and promote overall health.
Other examples of risks related to food or nutrition include foodborne illness from contaminated food, allergies or intolerances to certain foods, and micronutrient deficiencies from inadequate intake of essential vitamins and minerals.
What is the difference between absolute and relative risk?
Absolute risk and relative risk are both measures of the likelihood of an event occurring, but they are calculated and used in different ways.
Absolute risk is a measure of the actual risk of an event occurring in a given population over a specific period of time. It is calculated as the number of events (such as cases of a disease) that occur in a defined population over a defined period of time, divided by the total number of people in that population. Absolute risk is expressed as a percentage or a decimal.
For example, if a study found that out of 1000 people in a population, 10 people developed a certain disease over a period of one year, then the absolute risk of developing that disease would be 1%.
Relative risk, on the other hand, is a measure of the strength of the association between a risk factor and an outcome, and it compares the risk of an event occurring in one group to the risk of that event occurring in another group. It is calculated as the ratio of the risk of an event occurring in one group (such as a group exposed to a particular risk factor) to the risk of that same event occurring in another group (such as a group not exposed to that risk factor). Relative risk is expressed as a ratio.
For example, if a study found that the risk of developing a certain disease was twice as high in people who smoke compared to people who do not smoke, then the relative risk of developing that disease associated with smoking would be 2.
In summary, absolute risk measures the actual risk of an event occurring in a population, while relative risk measures the strength of the association between a risk factor and an outcome by comparing the risk of an event occurring in one group to another group.
Rank order these risk factors for heart disease and provide a reference for each one.
The order of heart disease risk factors presented in my answer is based on the available evidence and consensus among reputable sources.
1. Smoking: According to the American Heart Association, smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease and is responsible for one in three deaths from cardiovascular disease in the United States. (Source: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/consumer-healthcare/what-is-cardiovascular-disease/smoking-and-cardiovascular-disease) 2. Family history: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that having a family history of heart disease can increase an individual's risk of developing the condition. (Source: https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/family_history.htm) 3. High fat diet: The American Heart Association advises that consuming a diet that is high in saturated and trans fats can increase cholesterol levels and contribute to the development of heart disease. (Source: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats) 4. Inactivity: The CDC states that a sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor for heart disease and other chronic health problems. (Source: https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/physical_activity.htm) 5. Obesity: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute notes that obesity is a risk factor for heart disease and is associated with a higher risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other cardiovascular problems. (Source: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/obesity) 6. High sodium diet: The CDC advises that consuming too much sodium can increase blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. (Source: https://www.cdc.gov/salt/pdfs/sodium_dietary_guidelines.pdf) 7. Age: The American Heart Association notes that the risk of heart disease increases with age, with the risk rising significantly after age 45 for men and after age 55 for women. (Source: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/consumer-healthcare/what-is-cardiovascular-disease/understanding-your-risk-for-preventing-cardiovascular-disease) 8. Stress: The American Heart Association states that while the link between stress and heart disease is not fully understood, chronic stress can increase inflammation and contribute to the development of heart disease. (Source: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/stress-and-heart-health)
A specific topic consumers ask food and nutrition professionals about involves the safety of eating fresh produce that has been grown using pesticides. An annual report called the “Dirty Dozen” presents their consumption as a threat. Let’s see if ChatGPT can assist us in responding…
Are there really a dozen fresh fruits and vegetables that are unsafe to eat due to pesticides?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes an annual report called the "Dirty Dozen" that lists the fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues based on their analysis of USDA and FDA testing data. However, it is important to note that the levels of pesticide residues found on these foods are still generally considered to be within safe limits set by regulatory agencies.
The EWG report is often criticized by some experts who argue that the ranking system can be misleading and that the list can create unnecessary fear and confusion about the safety of consuming fresh produce. In fact, both the USDA and the FDA have stated that their testing shows that the vast majority of fruits and vegetables tested are well below established safety standards for pesticide residues.
It is important to remember that consuming a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a balanced diet is generally considered to be beneficial to overall health. To minimize potential exposure to pesticides, it is recommended to wash produce thoroughly before eating or cooking, and consider choosing organic options when possible. Additionally, individuals who are concerned about their pesticide exposure can speak with their healthcare provider or a registered dietitian for personalized advice.
What foods are the riskiest to consume?
It is difficult to identify a single food item as the riskiest to consume, as food safety risks can vary depending on a number of factors such as how the food is produced, prepared, and stored. However, some food items are generally considered to be higher risk than others, including:
1. Raw or undercooked meat and poultry: These foods can be contaminated with harmful bacteria, such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, which can cause serious illness. 2. Raw or undercooked eggs: Like meat and poultry, eggs can be contaminated with Salmonella, which can cause severe illness, especially in young children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems. 3. Raw shellfish: Raw or undercooked shellfish, such as oysters and clams, can contain harmful viruses, bacteria, and parasites that can cause foodborne illness. 4. Unpasteurized dairy products: Raw milk and unpasteurized dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, can be contaminated with harmful bacteria, such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria. 5. Sprouts: Raw sprouts, such as alfalfa, clover, and radish sprouts, can be contaminated with harmful bacteria, such as E. coli and Salmonella.
It's worth noting that proper food handling, storage, and cooking practices can significantly reduce the risk of foodborne illness. It is important to follow safe food handling practices, such as washing hands and surfaces, cooking food to the appropriate temperature, and storing food at the appropriate temperature. Additionally, consuming a varied and balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables can help promote overall health and reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
Lastly, headlines about the risks of using AI tools such as ChatGPT are common with Italy recently prohibiting its use. Let’s see what Chat GPT says about the risks…
What are the potential risks to using AI tools such as ChatGPT?
There are several potential risks to using AI tools like ChatGPT. Here are some of them:
1. Bias: AI models like ChatGPT can learn and perpetuate biases present in the data used to train them. This can result in unfair or discriminatory outcomes for certain groups of people. 2. Privacy: AI tools like ChatGPT often require access to sensitive data to perform their tasks. If this data is mishandled or falls into the wrong hands, it can result in privacy violations or even identity theft. 3. Security: AI tools like ChatGPT can be vulnerable to attacks from hackers or other malicious actors. If an attacker gains control of an AI tool, they could potentially use it to carry out harmful actions. 4. Dependence: As AI tools like ChatGPT become more advanced, there is a risk that people will become overly reliant on them. This could lead to a loss of critical thinking skills and an inability to make decisions without the assistance of AI. 5. Unintended consequences: AI tools like ChatGPT are designed to optimize for certain outcomes, but they may have unintended consequences that were not anticipated by their creators. These consequences could be harmful to individuals or society as a whole.
It's important to recognize these risks and take steps to mitigate them as AI continues to become more prevalent in our lives.
What questions about risk do your audiences have? Might AI help supply clarity and examples?
“Effective risk communication is essential to the well-being of any organization and those people who depend on it. Ineffective communication can cost lives, money, and reputations.”
~ The Food and Drug Administration, in Communicating Risks and Benefits: An Evidence-Based User's Guide Baruch Fischhoff, PhD, Noel T. Brewer, PhD, & Julie S. Downs, PhD, editors
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