How to Separate Healthy Fact from Fiction

''Show me the research!'' Of all the advice and information I absorbed as an undergraduate studying health and physical education, this one phrase from a literature review professor is one that has stuck with me throughout my career. It taught me to question everything that I read and never take any information as gospel. When I read headlines regarding the latest trends in nutrition and exercise today, I ask, ''Who did the research? What could they stand to gain by proving their hypothesis? Are we looking at a small, randomized group over a brief period of time, or a large population followed over years?''
Today, it seems more important than ever to learn to ask the right questions when it comes to health and fitness. Inundated with so much conflicting information from news articles, nightly news reports and Twitter, it’s no wonder people find themselves confused as they search for the answer to healthy living.
Drink coffee. Give up coffee. Increase your omega 3’s by eating more fish. Don’t eat too much fish due to the abundance of mercury. Low-fat is the best way to go for heart health and weight loss. No, wait, it’s actually low-carb. And on and on.
It’s enough to make anyone crazy! Overloaded with such information, some will throw up their hands and say, ''I don’t care. I’m just going to eat whatever I want.'' Others will flip from one fad to another, desperately trying the newest miracle food or diet plan, and end up in exactly the same place: frustrated, confused and too often, overweight.
Believe me, I know how you feel. I often think, ''I’m a professional in the field, reading and studying the dietary trends all the time, and I’m confused. How are my clients supposed to know what to do?''
Based on my experience in the field and my desire to dissect the research, my best advice for discovering the path to health is to learn how to decipher the variety of scientific research news by keeping these tips in mind.
Be Skeptical
Always remember that you don’t have to believe everything you read. Just because it is in print doesn’t mean that it is correct. However, do approach new information with curiosity and open-mindedness. Adopt an attitude of ''This is interesting. I am curious to see if this is truly fact or sensationalism.''

It is also important to take a look at who funded the research. Keep in mind that often the company or association that manufactures the food stands to benefit economically from an increase in sales.
If It Sounds Too Good to be True, It Usually Is
This is especially true when it comes to weight loss. Advertisers play on the emotional vulnerability and desperation of the dieter. The multi-billion dollar weight-loss industry is selling to the ''quick-fix'' mentality. However, as sound scientific evidence has shown time and time again, sustained weight loss takes time and effort. No combination of specific foods or elimination of entire food groups is going to lead to permanent weight loss and good health.
Small, short-term, randomized studies, rather than large population studies done over time are often the basis of reported results. When you read testimonials of highly successful weight losers who followed a specific plan or took a specific pill, drink or potion, there is little or no mention of the other lifestyle changes that went along with it. Most participants also increased exercise and adjusted other eating habits aside from the recommended ones that the study was focusing on. Those in the controlled study group often work with counselors and accountability partners. I would be interested to see where these individuals are a year past the study or five years down the line.
Exercise Caution When Considering Fad Diets
For years, different fad diets have taken their turn battling it out in the weight-loss arena. In the 70’s and 80’s, fat was the enemy. Then, in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, it was impossible not to look at the mass of information from the doctors who now blamed high-carbohydrate diets for America's skyrocketing obesity rates.
However, the research looking at low-carb diets vs. low-fat diets has found that the differences in weight-loss effectiveness are minimal between the two. The bottom line is that when comparing not only initial weight loss, but sustained weight loss over time, one thing remains constant—when people follow a specific weight-loss plan (which usually results in a dramatic reduction in the calories they were eating beforehand), no matter what the percentage of food groups that make up that plan, they lose weight.
Similar principles can be applied to today's fad diets—notably paleo, primal, slow-carb and gluten-free (for non-celiacs). These diets often promise not only weight loss, but near-superhuman health benefits. However, keep in mind that most of the phenomenal, almost unbelievable results that are reported by individuals who go on these diets are based on small, randomized studies done by the exact individuals that want you to buy their diet books, programs or products. And, of course, when you cut out major food groups as advocated by these diets, you're bound to lose weight—but a fad diet is probably not the most sustainable route to take for life-long health and satisfaction.
What Can I Believe?
With all of this conflicting information and all these camps vying for your attention, how in the world do you know who to believe, what to believe and what to eat just to stay healthy or lose weight?
It’s time to become your own detective. It’s time to start really paying attention to your body and how it reacts to the things you are putting into it on a daily basis. Tune in to your intuition and your gut.
To begin, for the next few weeks, carry a small memo pad with you and keep a food diary. Log the foods you eat and how you feel shortly after. Monitor your weight on a regular basis, stepping on the scale no more than once or twice a week.
Then, identify your goals. Do you want to lose weight? If so, the scale is going to tell you if the way you are eating is supporting or sabotaging that effort. Are you feeling sluggish and lacking in energy? Begin to experiment with changing when you eat, what you eat and how much you eat. If you notice a breakfast of oatmeal, berries and nuts powers you through the morning, but a bagel and cream cheese has you tired and hungry by 10:30 AM, you don’t need to be a nutritionist to figure out which breakfast is a better option for you. If every time you have pasta for dinner you feel bloated, uncomfortable and gassy, perhaps you should consider cutting back on gluten, and see how that makes you feel.
You can listen to your body and learn what you should and shouldn’t be eating to lose weight and feel great. Rather than ''going on a diet'’ or jumping from research study to research study, create a personal healthy-eating plan that is as unique as your lifestyle. If you don’t think you can figure it out on your own, one or two consultations with a registered dietitian could be a wise investment.
My Diet Plan
After thirty years of working in the nutrition and health trenches, here are my guidelines and advice based on my own diet plan.
  • Eat often and eat light. Never go more than four hours without food. This will keep your blood sugar on an even keel.
  • Aim for every meal and every snack to be a combination of protein, healthy fat and complex carbohydrates.
  • Load up on as many fruits and vegetables as you can--all day, every day.
  • As much as possible, steer clear of processed foods and those with added sugar.
  • When you purchase packaged foods, choose those with a smaller ingredient list. If you can’t pronounce the ingredient, there is a good chance you don’t want it in your body.
  • In general, when choosing packaged foods such as breakfast cereals, breads and snack bars, the higher the fiber and the lower the sugar, the better.
  • Unless you have a specific allergy or medical condition, no food is ever completely off limits. Occasional treats can help you avoid feelings of deprivation that often lead to bingeing.
  • Savor the experience of eating. Eat foods that make you feel good, both physically and emotionally, and steer clear of those that don’t!
Behind the Headlines, Nutrition Action Newsletter: January/February 2015.
Dairy: 6 Reasons You Should Avoid it at All Costs, from Dr. Mark Hyman.
Cordian, Loren. 2002.The Paleo Diet.  New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.