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  • Writer's pictureBarbara J. Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Why can’t nutrition experts agree? Conquer this misconception with truth and respect.

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

The words agree and disagree with small blocks with human icons

A common complaint about scientists in general and nutrition scientists, in particular, is that they can’t agree. One day they say coffee is good for us, the next day it is deadly. Substitute eggs, carbohydrates, or just about any food or food component for coffee, and you get the picture.

This misconception is frustrating to nutrition professionals because it leads the public to distrust nutrition guidance and the research on which it is based.

Let’s explore how we can conquer this misconception with truth and respect.

Do nutrition experts agree or disagree?

Both. Nutrition experts agree about much more than they disagree about, but that doesn’t make for good headlines. Where there is conflict there is news. The media perpetuates this misconception by focusing on points of disagreement.

However, nutrition experts DO disagree, and it is often disagreements that lead to further research and discovery.

It is only after extensive research that enough evidence accumulates to establish something as an irrefutable fact in which scientists DO agree. Until then, further research is needed.

Why does nutrition research seem to conflict so much?

Nutrition research is always limited in scope and therefore many studies are needed to investigate a research question from numerous angles, with various populations, and under different conditions.

Findings from a study with young men as research subjects will likely produce different results than one with elderly women. It would be wrong to generalize the findings of either study to the entire population. No study can have every type of potential subject.

Findings from research using cells in a test tube may be quite different from the findings from a study with living organisms, and lab rats and humans are not the same. Each type of research study contributes varying pieces of the bigger answer, and those pieces may not agree. Differences in findings contribute to the body of evidence as much as similarities.

Conflicting results can also stem from different study designs, how variables were controlled, what statistical analyses were performed, and many other factors.

As a science, nutrition is relatively new. It is only a century since serious research on nutrients began in the early 1900s. As research techniques evolve new findings can contradict previous findings.

Is conflict among experts a misconception?

Yes and no. Conflict and disagreement about many topics in nutrition do exist, yet these conflicts can contribute to the advancement of nutrition science.

What fuels the misconception of a higher degree of conflict than reality, is a distortion of the disagreement among experts as well as the misrepresentation of research findings by the media or by social media influencers. Conflicts are magnified, correlations become causation, and findings are taken out of context.

Conquer this misconception with truth and respect.

When someone remarks about something they read or heard that perpetuates the misconception that nutrition experts can’t agree, or keep changing their minds, begin by asking where they read or heard it. Acknowledge that media headlines and stories often present information inaccurately.

Each week, the nutrition scientists from share an example of a sensational headline versus the study on which it was based. Here is a recent example:

Offer to verify the source and try to find the original article published in a peer-reviewed journal. Help others appreciate the nature of research and how one study does not have all the answers and further studies often come up with conflicting results. As more studies are performed, the evidence becomes stronger and there will be more agreement than disagreement. Believing that nutrition experts can’t agree is one of many common misconceptions about food and nutrition. A particularly popular misconception is one which categorizes food as good or bad. Another is the misconception that many dangers are lurking in our food. There are numerous reasons why people believe in misconceptions.

In next week’s post, we will explore the misconception that complex nutrition problems can be magically cured with simple solutions.

“The growth of knowledge depends entirely upon disagreement.” ~ Karl Popper

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