Why do nutrition lies sell so much better than nutrition truths?
Ever argued with someone about what is the best way to lose weight? You claim something, they claim something else. You’ve both read books by experts with doctor before their name. You’ve both watched TV shows on the BBC and channel 4. Who’s right?
Welcome to the world of alternative facts.
Alternative facts and nutrition
Beliefs. If you think about the fact that people out there think that the world is flat, or that we’re all secretly ruled by giant lizards, what is believable and not believable becomes an interesting concept.
Do you believe in Xenu, an extra-terrestrial dictator who brought billions of people to Earth in a spacecraft 75 million years ago? Tom Cruise does. Do you believe that a spirit called Metatron helped you make your comeback album? Carlos Santana does.
Nutrition isn’t quite as extreme as these two celeb examples, but in a world where reality is just far too boring, telling the truth comes second to spinning a great yarn. Alternative facts, if you like, take centre stage.
You’re not stupid
You are not stupid, naive, or gullible. You are, however, susceptible. We all are.
Whenever you test drive a car, look at a new TV, ponder the new hair straightener your friend uses, or ask the wine waiter for a recommendation; it’s the story you buy into, not the product itself.
You don’t want boring facts. You want a concept, a central theme that you can buy into.
- A boy and girl from two rival, feuding, families fall in love. Through their ultimate tragedy, the families are reconciled.
- The youngest son of a mafia family takes revenge on the men who shot his father to eventually become the new boss.
- A young boy discovers he’s a wizard who struggles to fulfil his destiny while also retaining his humanity.
- A young woman finds out that excess calories don’t cause fat gain, it’s down to insulin. She goes on to uncover the truth no one else knows about the real reason we gain weight.
It’s not you, it’s the insulin. It’s the gluten. It’s the pesticides. This is more powerful, this is so much more compelling than the truth.
Whilst the mechanism for weight gain may be simple (an unused surplus of energy over time causes fat gain, and nothing else. Seriously. Nothing), the reason that people gain weight is highly complex. Framing carbohydrates as a single bad guy makes it simple and builds on a few already ingrained, beliefs.
Consuming more energy than you burn is easy, it’s not a sin. Yet if faced with the fact that you’ve gained weight, you immediately go on the defensive – “I don’t overeat, I don’t consume more calories than I burn, I’m not lazy! It’s the insulin! Let’s quickly look what makes the insulin-causes-fat-gain story so believable.
Good vs Evil
Every decent story has a hero and a bad guy. Taking the complicated brain aching reality of weight gain, and making it you vs carbs, immediately creates buy-in. Now it’s not about calories, overeating, an obesogenic food environment, palatability, and the satiety index. It’s Luke and Vader, Superman and Lex Luthor, Bond and Blofeld.
You secretly always knew you don’t overeat. You’re not like the others, there was something more complicated going on. Now you know that it’s the way carbs affect your hormones (it isn’t), you feel so much better about the 3kg you put on over Christmas. You’ve been lied to all this time, and you can’t wait to tell everyone what you’ve learned.
”You can’t handle the truth!”
In a complicated world, lies work better than the truth. Your low carb diet works so much better because you believe it’s true. The story, in this case, is much more appealing than the reality.
What to do about it?
Knowing you’re susceptible to a story rather than the truth in the first place is winning half the battle. Next time you hear the conversation at work, you’ll stop and pause. Next time some bright young thing pops up on TV talking about the evils of sugar, you’ll stare sceptically at them rather than immediately buying their book on amazon.
How to navigate fake news
Here are a few tips to bear in mind if the story sounds too good to be true. Avoid all of the following:
- Are they really an authority? Does doctor before their name indicate expertise? Be very wary of nutritional advice coming from a brain surgeon or paediatrician. Even if they’re super smart, they’re still susceptible to all the subtle biases you are.
- Alarm bells should immediately ring if they claim “it worked for me”.
- Beware of over sciencey gobbledegook. If they are talking about alkaline this, and hormone that, without actually being clued up in that field, then run for the hills.
- They have a diet named after them
- Their name is Davina McCall
The never ending series of claims and counter-claims that is the diet industry is relentless.
In a world where stories that sound consistent and authentic are way more likely to sell than the boring old truth, it can be hard to navigate the deluge of alternative facts and fake nutrition news if nutritional enlightenment is the goal.
Keep your wits about you, and remember if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
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