A frequent request from my students is where to get reliable information on nutrition; a request often followed by “where do you get your information and what strategies do you use to keep up with the literature?” @DrTomSherman
I was reminded of these questions when EFFi (Eco Friendly Foods Initiative) recently released their heavily promoted list of The 30 Top Nutritionists on Twitter and Why You Should Follow Them. With only a few exceptions, however, this is a very disappointing list of “experts by your side” as the blog describes them. I have no doubt that these are fine people with an honest interest in promoting good nutrition and health, but again, with a few exceptions, the list is mostly comprised of authors promoting their new books, professionals promoting their practices, bloggers promoting their websites, and media personalities promoting their images and TV or web programs. A casual read through their various Twitter feeds yields a long list of commonly voiced statements that either mean little or are simply not true, such as: “This is no ordinary potato! Each layer of this loaded spud can help soothe #PMS symptoms”; “How to pack a punch with kiwi fruit”; “Flu shots are a good idea, and there are other complementary approaches. For more ideas, try 6 Foods That Fight the Flu on Epicurious”; and “Feeling bloated today? Some foods that just might make u feel better :).” And honestly, whenever I read that a certain recommended food “is packed with antioxidants,” I immediately tune that writer out as someone who has bought into a contemporary canard without critical thinking. Many of these nutritionists seem to play the role of cheerleader to their followers – which definitely has its place – but it does not have a place as an unbiased, critical source of evidence-based information on nutrition.
I acknowledge that his critique is a little unfair, given that many academics, scientists, authors and investigative reporters that I respect highly, and who I am about to recommended as solid sources of information, also have books or other publications for sale. My distinctions are based on the substance of their recommendations: are they citing a recent study or an article about a line of research? If so … wonderful. If not, they soon lose my attention.
With that as an introduction, here are my practices for keeping up with nutrition research:
The Science Literature
There really is no substitute for reading the scientific literature, and despite the vastness of this literature and the seemingly countless number of journals being published, it is easier for an academic to keep up with the literature in his or her field today than ever before. Because almost everything is online and our academic libraries subscribe to many of the high profile journals, it is possible to systematically scan the table of contents of relevant journals on a weekly or monthly schedule. A 15-minute investment per day provides enough time to look through the table of contents of two or three journals. On Mondays, for example, I look through the contents of the current Science and Nature. I am less methodical with the remaining days of the week, but I try to take advantage of those times when I find myself in an online journal as part of a specific search, to quickly look through the other titles to see if there is anything of interest; there almost always is.
It may sound almost quaint that I cite newspapers, The Washington Post and the New York Times in particular, as good sources of nutrition information, but the surprising reality is that I frequently find references to recently un-embargoed research studies in these newspapers. The quality of the writing for the Wellness section of The Washington Post ranges from the trite and superficial to the impressive, but at least once per month I am tearing an article from Tuesday’s Health section at the breakfast table for further research at my office. The online Health section of The New York Times, however, is consistently impressive and surprisingly comprehensive with subsections entitled Research, Fitness & Nutrition, Money & Policy, Views, and Health Guide. I especially appreciate how articles in the Times always contain links to the original research paper, and often also have links to studies providing history or background on the topic and previous articles on the subject. Plus, the academic pricing for an online subscription is very attractive.
I was late to twitter, I seldom tweet, and I only cautiously and judiciously elect to follow someone. That being said, I am shocked at how useful a tool twitter has proven to alerting me to a wide range of sources, studies and topics that I would otherwise have never discovered. I have an odd workflow, I am sure, when it comes to twitter; but it works for me. Where I might identify a useful reference once every other month from the Washington Post, and perhaps every other week from the New York Times, I find 2–4 almost every morning from my twitter feed. The following is a short, tried-and-true list of useful people to follow:
Marion Nestle (@marionnestle): Professor, Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, & Public Health, NYU, author of many books, including “Food Politics” and “Eat Drink Vote”, and writes the Food Politics blog. A persistent critic of the food industry and an evidence-based voice of reason in today’s polarized nutrition climate.
Gyorgy Scrinis (@GyorgyScrinis): writer and journalist, author of “Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice.” Mr. Scrinis coined the term Nutritionism, which describes a corruptive ideology that focuses on the nutrients in foods rather than on the foods themselves. I credit Mr. Scrinis for shaping the manner in which I teach nutrition more than any other scientist or writer. Mr. Scrinis tweets about as often as I do, which is to say, very seldom.
Michael Pollan (@michaelpollan): author of Cooked; Food Rules; In Defense of Food; The Omnivore’s Dilemma. A champion for home cooking as both a practice and a metaphor for taking control of your diet and lessoning the impact of the food industry on your diet.
Mark Bittman (@bittman): New York Times columnist and author of the How to Cook Everything series of cookbooks. An insightful recipe author and critic of the food industry, his writings have grown increasingly political and more food justice focused over the past years, which have added depth to his columns.
Gary Taubes (@garytaubes): Author of Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat. Mr. Taubes is the poster child for critical scientific journalism and is famous (infamous?) for his attacks on the scientific community for failing to properly evaluate the data rather than follow some preordained consensus. A vocal proponent of carbohydrates being at the root of obesity. A somewhat tiresome negative voice, he is more often right than wrong.
Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, in an interview with the Guardian discussing his aversion to social media, stated: “I do not Twitter. I’m not seeking followers, I don’t have a website. I’m not writing diatribes that have a 10-point political programme. I suppose it’s an old-fashioned investigative goal of trying to expose.” And expose he does in his books and his involvement with my favorite documentary on the food industry, Food, Inc.
Workflow Advice to Teachers
Each one of my lectures is contained within a folder on my computer that, in addition to lecture associated documents such as notes, learning objectives and handouts, etc., contains a folder entitled New info since spring 2014 lecture. Every time I encounter a new study or useful reference relating to one of my lectures, I place a pdf of, or a link to, that publication in the folder. Prior to giving that lecture, I survey the contents of the New info folder to determine what, if anything, might be used to update the lecture, and if so, what content I need to remove so that the lecture is not too long. This system works great, and dramatically decreases the time spent keeping my lectures up to date.