Now that I am nearing the end of my college career, I am often asked a) what I majored in, and b) what I plan to do with my degree.

When I reply that I plan to further my education and earn my R.D. and M.S. in nutrition, I get a variety of responses. Some people express a shared interest in “all that healthy eating business” and wish me well, while others seem to think that nutrition is less worthy a field than, say, medicine.

Such folks warn me that my future schooling will rely too heavily on the teachings of what they see as a corrupt and power-hungry FDA, and remind me that there is more to good nutrition than the traditional food pyramid.

Others wonder why I need graduate school to further my understanding of nutrition; can’t anyone brand a diet and supplement philosophy these days?

I choose not to engage in the majority of these conversations. I don’t bother informing my well-meaning advising staff that I am deeply aware of the power of a particular food or crop lobby to suade a FDA ruling, or that I find it paramount to keep abreast of research in all areas of the field of nutrition, including that which applies to “alternative” philosophies like macrobiotics and Chinese medicine.

It is true that a slick marketing scheme and sufficient capital can make you rich selling açaí berries or a bottle of goo professing to “cut fat FAST,” but the field of medicine faces and has always faced the same quackery. A little trephination for your epilepsy, perhaps?

If nutrition is to medicine as food is to pharmaceutical drugs, than the two differ only on one key point– pharmaceuticals are available largely only by prescription, while that which is “prescribed” by nutritionists and dieticians is available everywhere you look. Whether it is a King-sized Snickers staring you down in the checkout line at the grocery store or the meat loaf your mom lovingly crafts every time you visit home, the genre of medicine known as food is omnipresent.

This omnipresence is both a blessing and a curse; anyone has the ability to treat a calcium deficiency with milk or leafy greens, or waning energy with a slice of whole-grain toast and peanut butter, but this copious supply of food also has its drawbacks. 24 hour-access to food and food and more food ensures that the quackery reaches us that much faster, and in places we might not expect.

Stopping into Walgreens on my way home from class the other day, I wandered through the aisles looking for a couple of things. In between the vitamins and cold remedies was a small display of clearance items. Glittery pens and adult diapers dominated, but there was also an abundance of diet products– a package of cardboard treats care of the Hollywood Cookie Diet, some Hoodia spray (really? I mean, really?) and various other items claiming to remove those pesky 20/30/[fill in the blank] extra pounds. The bullshit might not have been selling well, but it had proved just how ubiquitous it was.

Photo credit: http://www.hoodispray.com/

In light of all this bunk, it is understandable to question the validity of nutrition as a science. How can the business of feeding one’s self be considered a “science” when it is within our own capacity to eat in a way that protects us from everything from migraines to chronic disease? And when it is so patently easy for the bullshit to slip through the cracks?

My answer is this: Despite how frequently the powers that be of the nutrition world change their mind about the merits or dangers of coffee, chocolate or red meat, it is still the scientific method that guides their inquiry, just like the medical field.

It is the scientific method that allows biomedical research studies to be approved by an IRB, and to test the impact of a beta carotene or vitamin D supplement on the experimental group. And it is the scientific method that informs what, if any, conclusions can be drawn from a particular study’s results.

Say the group receiving the supplement experienced better health markers than the group receiving a placebo. Before it can be argued that the particular nutrient or vitamin was responsible for the improvement in health, questions must be asked of the experimental design. Was the study double-blind? In other words, did neither the study’s participants nor the research staff know which treatment a particular group was receiving?

If the study was indeed double-blind, are there confounding factors that must be considered prior to formulating any conclusions? Is there something about the experimental group that might also be responsible for improved health? Better fitness habits, for example?

I don’t mean to bore you with the remnants of my Psych. 192: Research Methods knowledge, but I do hope to help convince you that good nutrition, like good medicine, is a scientifically rigorous discipline.

Anyone can manufacture a product professing to do x, y or z, but it wasn’t some slick bullshit artist who was responsible for figuring out that Vitamin D is necessary for proper calcium absorption.

Just sayin’– it isn’t that simple.

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