4 Warning Signs of Bad Diet Advice

February 2, 2020

Nutrition advice seems to come from everywhere these days: your foodie friends, your Instagram feed, and every newsstand magazine, snack-bar wrapper and beverage label you might pick up in the checkout aisle.

When inundated with information that seems to be validated by one source and myth-busted by the next, how do you differentiate conjecture from wisdom? Look out for these four red flags.

Red Flag: “Breakthroughs” 

Marion Nestle, an emerita professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and the author of several books on food politics, says that certain phrases are immediate warning signs. “If it’s a ‘breakthrough,’ be suspicious. There are no breakthroughs in nutrition science,” she says.

Also watch for phrases like “everything you knew about nutrition is wrong,” or anyone touting wide-ranging benefits of a single food or nutrient. If a headline looks promising, Nestle suggests digging deeper to cross-reference any research studies that the article mentions.

Red Flag: Industry-Sponsored Science

Even in scientific papers, ulterior marketing may be hidden. “Maybe the dairy industry funds a study about how great dairy is,” says registered dietitian Emily Harrison, founder of Nutrition for Great Performances, “but nobody scrolls down to the end of a 10-page research study and looks to see if it was funded by industry.”

This is problematic, because, as Nestle points out, it’s very easy to design studies to show a benefit. For-profit companies are motivated by their marketing goals, not your health, and are likely leaving out the larger picture.

Red Flag: A Lack of Credentials

A high follower count, aesthetically pleasing food posts and a bio with the word “nutritionist” do not add up to a credentialed professional.

“In the United States, it is perfectly legal to call yourself a nutritionist with zero schooling, zero credentials and really zero background,” warns Harrison. “Anybody can call themselves a nutritionist. However, the term ‘registered dietitian’ is protected under the law.”

She says it’s ideal to find a registered dietitian who knows about dancers’ unique challenges, but she would take any RD’s advice over a hobby blogger’s.

Red Flag: A New Trend

Good nutrition doesn’t cut corners. Harrison says that any meal plan promising “fast results now” is misleading. “I work with a lot of dancers who want to tone up or lose a few pounds, and they go on these crash diets because they heard about paleo or keto,” she says. Severely restricting a food group may temporarily change the number on a scale, but it can put you in danger of losing muscle and getting injured due to malnutrition. “Real results take time,” she says.

“Nutrition advice has not changed in 50 years, although most people have the impression that it changes constantly,” Nestle says. “The idea that you should eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, not overeat and not eat much junk food has been around for a long time.”

For a particularly health-conscious, active population like dancers, Harrison reiterates proper fuel over fads. “Real dancers eat. They’re athletes,” she says. When in doubt, trust decades of nutrition research and your common sense.