The Truth About Nutrition in Media

By Stefanie Sacks, MS, CNS, CDN

Recently a journalist reached out regarding a story she was writing for a national health magazine. Her assignment was to reveal how a gluten-free diet is more nutritious than a gluten-containing one. Her specific question: “Can you please offer insight into the superior nutrition of flours without gluten versus those containing gluten?”

Nutrition experts are often called on to offer credibility to anything diet-related. Sadly, because real nutrition journalism is neither sexy nor dramatic, rather science-based, too many tales are sensationalized, don’t tell the real, or whole, truth, and ultimately leave you in the crossfire of mixed messaging.

The Printed Word

The absolute truth is that by the time a grain turns to flour, there isn’t much nutrition to write home about—gluten-free or otherwise. In fact, there is absolutely no way I could or would attest to the fact that a gluten-free flour like rice or tapioca is more nutritious than whole wheat flour. I explained this to the journalist and added, “If you tell your readers that a gluten-free diet is more nutritious than its counterpart, you are lying to your readers and doing them a great disservice.”

The journalist thanked me and said she would circle back. As expected, she never did. However, certainly she received the information she needed to shape her article on “The Superior Nutrition of the Gluten-Free Diet, Right Down to the Flours” from another source. Many people will read that article and believe that a gluten-free diet is their surefire way to healthy eating without understanding what it truly is and how to properly navigate it. Jimmy Kimmel’s Pedestrian Question — What is Gluten — says it all.

Many nutrition and medical experts give journalists, reporters, and hosts what they want rather than the truth, simply for the sake of media attention and money. And if not this, regrettably words are often twisted or arranged out of context during editing to suit the purpose of the piece.

The Morning Show

For many, television is still a source of baseline information. My husband is a morning news junkie, so catching a few segments while hustling my younger son to school is inevitable. One morning in particular, my interest was piqued when the host mentioned “healthy breakfasts.” Hopeful that some worthwhile education was forthcoming, I tuned in. The nutrition expert, discussing the merits of a healthy and balanced breakfast, showcased whole wheat pita bread with peanut butter. Good choice. But then, a jar of well-known (and unhealthy) peanut butter flashed across the screen. This nutty spread contains roasted peanuts, sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oils (also known as trans fats), and salt. Truly healthy peanut butter should have two ingredients — peanuts and salt — or just peanuts. Here, an expert and a media outlet touted the benefits of a product where sugar is the second ingredient and hydrogenated oils is the third. There is enough science to prove that both have greatly contributed to our nation’s health crisis. As per the Centers for Disease Control, “Eating and drinking too many added sugars makes it difficult to achieve a healthy eating pattern without taking in too many calories.” And, trans fats greatly contribute to cardiovascular disease so much so that if removed from our food supply, 17 million deaths could be prevented by 2040.

For peanut butter, there are many better-for-you-alternatives to highlight. So why didn’t the nutritionist do so? As it turns out, in this scenario, the presenting expert has a working relationship with the company that makes and markets this nutty spread. This is not an anomaly.

"Health professionals should first do no harm, yet priorities shift when money and publicity are on the table."

While the media should be mindful of calling on experts that are “in bed” with Big Food promoting unhealthy options, corporate sponsorships must be preserved. That said, it’s a great shame that nutrition professionals perpetuate the problem. Health professionals should first do no harm, yet priorities shift when money and publicity are on the table.

Getting Social

Before there was social media, influencer marketing happened (and still does) via print and broadcast. When products are highlighted by experts or celebrities, readers, viewers, and listeners automatically assume it’s healthy. Consumers purchase the product, tell their friends, and pretty soon manufacturer profits skyrocket. This is sales and marketing 101.

Several years ago, a dear friend and producer for a popular daytime health show called from the editing floor. “You must engage on social media. It’s the way to get your voice out there,” she advised. “I am editing the most ridiculous segment,” she continued. “It’s for a woman who has a show on the Food Network, no expertise, and all she does is eat.” And then, “Just so you know, the only reason she was invited on our show is because she has a million followers on Facebook.”

With the revolution of social media, we have seen a whole new type of influencer—people (not necessarily experts at all), willing to do anything for attention and fame. Of these influencers, the most concerning is the quasi-health expert (and even the credible health expert) pushing pseudoscience and products. A formal and credible education in nutrition science and dietetics no longer matters; the number of followers does.

The most concerning social media influencer is the quasi-health expert (and even the credible health expert) pushing pseudoscience and products.

In any of these scenarios, it’s Big Food and bottom lines first, health last. If you want real integrity when it comes to what you ingest, take in mainstream media with skepticism and always be mindful of the source. For a roundup of responsible nutrition sources and resources head over to Nutrition Sources You Can Trust.

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