When you consider how highly complex food systems interact with highly complex human systems, it is a bit overwhelming. Then consider the thousands of different food species, nutrients, dietary patterns and combinations, how these interact with differing activities and other environmental variables, and elucidating an ideal diet seems an impossible task. Though we know a lot about some aspects of food, we are more confused than ever on others. I think this reflects a limited cognitive capacity to account for all of these variables (the human tendency is to look at few variables at a time and discount the importance of others), and human cognitive bias’ that push us toward seeing patterns that might not be there, or misinterpreting data in in the wrong context.
Existing nutritional research is often difficult to interpret and seemingly contradicting, until you meticulously consider design and potential residual confounders that are so difficult to mathematically account for.
Until recently, studying nutrition used classic study design to attempt to tease out the effects of individual variables. While this has given us a lot of insight on some mechanisms in the body, it has also unfairly demonized certain foods and partly pushed us into a health epidemic. We are discovering more and more how nutrients and pathways interact in the body, and it goes far beyond what appears on nutrition labels. Designing diets tailored to recommended doses of well studied nutrients is simply missing the forest for the trees.
Instead new methods of studying nutrition are being adopted, ushered in by the age of nutrigenomics. A recent video interview of Dr. Jim Kaput, director of the Division of Personalized Nutrition and Medicine in the FDA offers a refreshing, conservative opinion on the field of nutrigenomics, that is borrowing ideas and technologies from other science disciplines to analyze massive amounts of data to bring a personalized understanding to nutrition. And hopefully it will give us a bigger picture view of nutrient-pathway interactions so we don’t make mistakes that cause unwarranted restrictions as did the lipid hypothesis.
Though maybe we will find that marrying nutrition and genetic/-omics will make establishing ideal diets an even more daunting task? The road will be long and arduous…
Video link via @nutrigenomics