Is Nutrition Education the Real Cause of Obesity?

High fructose corn syrup, sugar sweetened beverages (soda), fast food restaurants, processed foods, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), gut microbiota, antibiotic exposure, cable television, video game systems, screen time, and a reduction in sport, recreational, and leisure time physical activity are all blamed as the “primary cause” of obesity by one expert or another.  Many of these supposed drivers for the obesity epidemic receive so much attention because they entered our food supply and/or our culture at the very time that the prevalence of obesity began to rise to dramatically in the early to mid 1980’s.  It is much too convenient to be able to pin the cause of obesity on events that occurred simultaneously to the rise in obesity without having any hard evidence to demonstrate cause and effect.  Just because these events coincided with one another has little bearing and no meaning on determining cause and effect.  As long as we are brainstorming possible drivers to the obesity epidemic I would like to implicate myself and my nutrition practicing colleagues as one of the many potential drivers of obesity in stating that I think nutrition education may actually be one of the greatest contributors to the obesity epidemic!

  • 5 Tasks versus 50 Tasks.  We have all made eating healthy far too complicated.  If you were asked to complete 5 tasks or 50 tasks in the same amount of time how well would you be able to perform those 5 tasks versus those 50 tasks?  You would most likely perform those 5 tasks very well and would be able to master these items quite easily.  What about those 50 tasks?  Would you perform all 50 of those tasks well?  Would you even get all 50 of those tasks completed?  Or when faced with performing those 50 tasks in a limited amount of time would you even bother trying to accept the challenge to complete them?  Would you throw your hands up in the air and say “why should I even bother, I won’t get them done anyways”.

What I just described to you is nutrition in a nutshell.  We have far too many rules to follow.  If I asked you to follow 5 nutrition rules you could probably comply with those rules pretty easily.  If, on the other hand, I asked you to abide by 50 different rules you would a) have a tough time remembering what those rules are in the first place and b) probably wouldn’t do a great job of complying with those rules anyways.  As nutrition practitioners we need to simplify the complexity of nutrition and eliminate some of our rules to make healthy eating more manageable.

  • We keep changing the rules and moving the bar.  Eggs are good for you, eggs are bad for you, yolks are bad for you because they contain too much cholesterol and you should only eat the whites, yolks are good for you because they contain vitamins and essential fatty acids and you should eat them, you should eat no more than 3 eggs a week, eat as many eggs as you want as long as they are fresh and natural, egg substitutes are superior to regular eggs, egg substitutes are not natural and are not superior to regular eggs, you should only eat eggs from chickens that are free range, don’t eat eggs from chickens that have been exposed to antibiotics, and don’t eat eggs that have been irradiated to kill pathogens that could make you very sick because irradiation destroys nutrients… 

After reading through that mess of a paragraph what kind of eggs should you buy?  Or should you be buying eggs at all?  The confusion over eggs is the same confusion that looms over meat and saturated fat, whole milk versus skim milk, organic versus conventional produce, grass fed versus grain fed, genetically modified versus “natural”, artificial sweeteners versus natural sugar, added sugar in general, food fortification, and so on.  It really just makes me sick.  I have been studying nutrition for close to 15 years and I oftentimes feel as confused as the rest of you as what to eat and when to eat it.  Eating should not be this complicated!

  • Knowledge of macronutrient and micronutrient contents.  Nutrition educators love to talk about our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors, the diets they consumed, and how we should all strive to be eating like them for optimal health.  Do you think that our Paleolithic ancestors of 50,000 years ago had any clue what a fat, protein, or carbohydrate even was?!!  Absolutely not!  They ate what they had to eat to survive!  Now that is what I call simple nutrition.  If we fast-forward 49,950 years we reach the 1960’s.  The mid 20th Century is also popular with nutritionists these days because the 1950’s and 60’s represent the diets we consumed when the majority of our population was healthy, before the start of the dreaded obesity epidemic of the 1980’s.  Our diets in the 1960’s were lacking many of the processed goodies that we are able to consume today, but you cannot tell me that mothers and grandmothers weren’t making cookies and baking cakes.  Sweets were plentifully available in the majority of middle class households.
The traditional family dinner of the past.

The traditional family dinner of the past.

Neither the diet of our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors nor the diets of friends and families of the 1960’s were particularly healthy from a macro and micronutrient standpoint.  And in both cases I am doubtful that either group had much of a macronutrient and micronutrient knowledge, meaning they probably didn’t have a very good idea of “good fats”, “bad fats”, or vitamin A and C content in certain foods.  They followed far fewer and simpler nutrition rules.  The Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ate to stay alive and the individual in the 1960’s ate meat, potatoes, and vegetables.  Neither group followed our modern day complicated nutrition rules and yet they seemingly made it just fine.

Public health experts stress the need for more nutrition education.  Why should we increase more of something that isn’t working?  Why don’t we stress simpler nutrition education?  Good nutrition is not as complicated as we all make it out to be.  Our stone-age ancestors and our nutrition naïve friends and family of the 1960’s ate simple yet healthy diets.  If nutrition education were simplified we could master the nutrition rules provided to us, we wouldn’t have to argue over whether an egg is good or bad for us, and we could do away with so many of our extraneous nutrition rules.  One day maybe nutrition education can be part of the solution rather than the problem!  Next week I would like to help you simplify your nutrition and share 5 basic principles to healthy eating.

Todd M. Weber PhD, MS, RD

Sources for Pictures:

  • Traditional Family Dinner: