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Nutrition on the internet: sorting the wacky from the wise

Okay. Now I’ve seen everything.

I have been working on Healthy Food Guide for 10 years and for sure, during that time there have been some odd, if not downright wacky, nutrition theories and fads that have come and gone. There’s been a never-ending series of goodies and baddies food-wise, too, with extra conspiracy theories thrown in for good measure.

In the murky world of half-truths and half-baked ideas around nutrition, we’ve seen previously demonised foods get turned somehow into health foods (butter springs to mind). Then there are foods we used to eat happily that have, at various points in time, become public enemy number one, in some circles at least (right now it’s bread, pasta, grains, and basically any carbohydrate). Most of these are not too surprising, when you look at trends over time.

But checking my Facebook feed the other day I saw a headline that I wouldn’t have predicted, except perhaps in the context of a comedy skit. It did, in fact, make me laugh out loud. The headline was: “Is bacon the new superfood?”

The article went on to claim that bacon “is actually good for you”. It then outlined seven reasons “bacon may be the new acai berry”. These included things such as: bacon is high in protein and contains monounsaturated fats, along with some questionable claims about vitamins and minerals. It also linked the saturated fat in bacon with satiety, trotting out the misconception that saturated fat is now, in fact, healthy. Bacon is great, the authors said; just make sure you choose a sugar-free one.

This is the kind of absurd thing that pops up all the time on the internet. It highlights a few points that should give us pause when we’re clicking through the social media space. Firstly, don’t forget that everyone’s a publisher online, which means anyone can portray themselves as a nutrition expert. But it pays to take care about who you trust for good advice. Just because someone has a best-selling book does not mean they have a deep and wide knowledge of nutrition. Nor does it mean they understand the value of good-quality evidence or that they base any advice they might give on the established body of evidence on a topic. “It worked for me” is not evidence. It’s anecdote.

Secondly, it’s never a good idea to focus too much on one food or nutrient, out of the context of the big picture. If you’re going for it eating ‘sugar-free’ bacon every day, without considering the rest of your diet (or what other foods that bacon might be displacing), you’re probably not eating a truly balanced and healthy diet overall. In the same way, even if bacon was a ‘superfood’, there’s no way in the world that adding any one food to your diet is going to make you healthy. There’s no such thing as a superfood. Only a super diet.

And lastly, just in case there’s any doubt: bacon is NOT a superfood. In fact, it’s probably something we should eat very, very rarely. In its Recommendations for Cancer Prevention, the World Cancer Research Fund suggests eating "very little, if any" processed meat. They link eating processed meats with a "convincing increased risk" of colorectal cancer. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, just 50 grams of processed meats consumed daily—less than two strips of bacon—can increase a person’s risk for colorectal cancer by 21 per cent.  They say, “no amount of processed meat is considered safe for consumption”.

Luckily, in the online world, sometimes the fact that everyone’s a publisher works to even out the crazy. The comments on this particular story were very much of the “Are you insane?” variety, with many people pointing out the flaws in the bacon-as-health-food theory. I’m pleased to see that this is one far-fetched, kooky nutrition trend that’s unlikely to take off. Just brace yourself for the next one.

First published: Mar 2015



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