Three Surprising Facts Nutrition Scientists Can Agree On (And Three They Can’t)

Three Surprising Facts Nutrition Scientists Can Agree On (And Three They Can’t)

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Updated January 16, 2020 Updated January 16
Before the advent of the 20th century, nutrition science was much simpler than it is today. Back then, many of the troubling diseases we had to deal with like scurvy or goiter were simply down to some form of diet deficiency, so all a physician had to do was point out what someone needed to eat more of.
Today, the situation is much more complex. Nutrition scientists need to consider many different types of studies to establish the links between cause and effect because overeating, which is responsible for diabetes, heart disease and many other diseases, is a lot harder to measure or resolve. But, despite its challenges, nutritional research is an incredibly important field, educating us on how to minimize the risk of birth defects and have a happy, healthy heart.
If you’re not sure what nutritional advice to follow, we’ve sorted the wheat from the chaff with the help of the nutrition experts running Karolinska Institutet’s master’s program in nutrition science. Here are some oft-peddled nutrition myths which have been thoroughly well as a few things nutrition scientists are still investigating.

Coffee drinkers should sleep soundly at night (if the caffeine isn’t keeping them up)

The popular belief that drinking several cups of coffee a day is bad for your health seems to be be nothing more than an old wives’ tale. In fact, research has shown that drinking up to six cups a day of coffee does not carry any increased risk of death from cancer or cardiovascular disease.

Low-fat options can be worse for your health

You’ll often see processed food marketed as being “low-fat”, but don’t be tricked into thinking that necessarily means it’s healthier. Manufacturers often swap fat for added starch or sugar, and unlike these added sugars, high-fat foods don’t actually make you fat if consumed in moderation. In fact, over the past 30 years, obesity rates have peaked in the US just as the percentage of calories from fat has decreased.

Half of your plate should be fruit and vegetables

Harvard researchers concluded that people who eat more than five servings of fruits and vegetables a day will have a 20% reduced risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, compared with people who eat fewer than three servings a day. Indeed, a diet rich in vegetables and fruits brings many benefits, such as preventing you from overeating and lowering your risk of heart disease, strokes and certain forms of cancers.

However...further research is needed on the health benefits of eating organic food

Despite claims to the contrary, there is still insufficient scientific evidence whether organic foods can help protect against cancer, although a recent European report concludes that organic agriculture may be beneficial for human health. There are also national pesticide regulations to make sure their levels in non-organic foods stay within safe limits.

Scientists are still discussing whether burnt food is actually carcinogenic

There are claims that eating burnt toast or overcooked roast potatoes carries a cancer risk, due to the fact that starchy food releases a compound called acrylamide when overcooked, which according to some studies can be carcinogenic. However,  these studies were carried out on animals, not humans. In fact, one study conducted on people across Europe, funded by the World Cancer Research Fund, found no link between acrylamide and cancer risk. Nevertheless, the UK Food Standards Agency advises you to cook potatoes, parsnips and bread until they turn a golden yellow color to limit the intake of acrylamide.

The existence of superfoods has been contested

The term “superfoods” doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s a term invented by advertisers for foods like kale or blueberries that supposedly bring many health benefits like protecting against cancer. However, the validity of research studies on superfoods has been questioned by some critics, who argue that these studies tested levels of nutrients not normally found in real food. If you want to stay healthy and minimize the risk of cancer, the scientific consensus is that your overall diet and lifestyle will have a bigger impact than eating a few superfoods.

Learn more about nutrition

Are you a nutrition geek? The Swedish life-sciences university Karolinska Institutet runs a prestigious master's program in nutrition science fully taught in English. It’s ideal for anyone looking to become a researcher and promises to equip you with the tools and knowledge you would need for further doctoral opportunities in the nutrition area. To find out more about the master’s program in nutrition science, register your interest here. Or apply online here.

This article was originally published in November 2017 . It was last updated in January 2020