Science Versus Myth in Nutrition and Heart Health

Nutrition and physical activity are the two controllable main factors concerning the development of heart disease. With this in mind, it’s important that the eating choices we make are based on science rather than the myths that are pervasive in both mainstream media and on social media.

In an article published in the peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, a team of researchers worked to separate fact from fiction about some of the more prevalent and recent trends in nutrition to provide both consumers and health practitioners science-backed information and reminded all that nutritional research, particularly that that involved heart health, requires a greater length of time and greater control of additional factors that could impact the outcome of the research than many recently published studies have employed.

Factors That Impact the Accuracy of Nutritional Research

In examining some of the current trends in popular nutrition thought, the team of physicians and dietitians looked not only at the information itself but from where and how the popular ideas for heart-healthy nutrition originated. Factors that influence all nutrition research include:

  • Randomized controlled trials of too short duration to determine whether a diet or individual food item did or did not contribute to the development of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease because such trials need to be ongoing for many years as atherosclerosis itself develops over decades.
  • Limitations in study methodology including imprecise measurement of a food or nutrient that is being consumed by individuals within the study, the failure or inability to include behavioral lifestyle factors that could also contribute to the study’s outcome such as physical activity levels of study participants, sleep patterns and additional factors.
  • Case-control studies that rely on study participants to keep a food journal become problematic with the accuracy of information recorded, from quantity consumed to an accurate recall of total dietary intake.
  • Funding of nutritional science research has often been from the private sector, usually by companies or associations seeking to prove or disprove a theory about their own products, leading to potential bias of the researchers undertaking the study to keep funding flowing.

The mainstream media also contributes to the prevalence of inaccurate information when it comes to nutritional research, picking and choosing the most sensational portions of a published study for headlines and articles intended to grab an audience’s attention.

An example of this was seen in 2015 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture removed the 300 mg/day suggested cholesterol limit in the national dietary guidelines. Sensational headlines and the articles that followed them failed to mention that while the 300mgm/day limit was lifted, an admonition was in its place advising people to eat as little cholesterol daily as possible.

How to Separate the Science of Nutrition from Nutritional Myths

There are ways that as consumers and our own health care advocates we can be more fully informed about the latest information in nutrition and health, including heart health.

  • Understand that while nutritional science is growing in its ability to learn new things about the foods we eat, along with the various nutrients, the most reliable research takes place over a number of years with factors controlled that could potentially affect the outcome of that research.
  • Seek nutrition information from reliable sources, from health care practitioners to nutritionists and dietitians to health organizations such as the American Heart Association and others.
  • Look for media sources that cite the original research upon which that article is based. In this way, you can read the research for yourself to learn if there is more to the story than the media source has shared.
  • Avoid relying on social media for health-centered information. When you read something on social media about nutrition, use that bit of information to do your own research to determine if the information is science-based and reliable before applying it to your own situation.

What Is a Heart-Healthy Diet?

When it comes to heart health, the research team continues to recommend one of three diet patterns:

What these eating patterns have in common are meals that include plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, proteins from plant sources such as beans and other legumes, nuts and seeds in moderation, and lean meat protein such as from poultry and fish in some.

Liquid oils are preferable to solid oils when an oil must be used.

Limit trans and saturated fats, sodium intake, refined sugars and refined grains.


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