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October 21, 2019

Interpreting the Nuances of Nutrition

Reading the fine print on our foods may seem cumbersome, but it is much more important for our health than we think.

As an Indian who avoids red meat, I’ve heard my fair share of corny, slightly offensive meat-related jokes. Commonly, “Don’t Indians worship cows?” on the lower end of this spectrum, “Ironic that your name is So-ham but you can’t even eat it,” and, in adorably Christocentric fashion, “Won’t you go to hell now?” said after I ate pork fried rice. 

However, I can’t deny that in the same vein, I’ve shot back my fair share of retorts about their flirtations with heart disease. Today, my sordid comebacks seem to have lost their weight. A recent study by the Annals of Internal Medicine claimed that there is not enough evidence to advise the public to reduce red meat consumption. Resisting the urge to chalk this finding up to the deep pockets of the meat industry— which I envision as suit-clad executives who introduce themselves as either Medium Rare or Well Done—I reconsidered my dietary decisions. With contentious new findings in nutritional science, disparate dietary guidelines, ethical and environmental considerations, and the busyness of being a UChicago student, eating healthily and responsibly is harder than ever.

Contradictory findings in nutritional science make it increasingly difficult to define a healthy diet. The red meat study didn’t conclude that we should eat more red meat, or that it was at all healthy to do so. It exposed the failings of previous studies stigmatizing red meat, citing a low certainty of evidence. Some see this as a positive development for nutritional science, suggesting that changing guidelines ensures that the field progressively improves itself. Since science has never been monolithic, this is an oversimplification. New research is not necessarily authoritative or progressive, especially as past debates are repeatedly resurrected without definitive resolution. That said, challenging the standards of research and publishing is a positive step forward for nutritional science. 

But while the finding may refine methods of nutritional science, it doesn’t necessarily do the same for public health. Standing in the supermarket after a day of four lectures, I don’t have the time or willpower to be a skeptical nutritionist. My idealistic side wishes for food labels that read GOOD or BAD so I don’t have to participate in the diabetes roulette, which my family is notoriously poor at. These already exist, such as the ‘well-being meters’ in the dining halls, but obviously provide only a facile gauge of nutritional value.  

One thing that has been helpful— and I encourage UChicago students to do the same—has been visiting UChicago Dining’s nutrition page, a simple, efficient step that may go a long way in building a healthier diet. You can view weekly menus complete with information regarding ingredients, nutritional values, and sourcing. And if you get your groceries from Whole Foods, Hyde Park Produce, Jewel Osco, or Target, you can find nutritional information on the packaging or by enquiring with the store. Still, this nutritional information does not explicitly resolve the looming issue: what foods we should probably eschew due to negative health effects. 

Changing the way food is labeled can go a long way in improving consumer information—but we must actually read the labels, even as busy, hungry college students. The FDA published new rules for the Nutrition Facts label in 2016, including bolder type and updated serving sizes. Studies have found a correlation between reading nutrition labels and a healthy diet, but some suspect this could go both ways: people with healthier diets might be more likely to read nutrition labels in the first place. In any case, it will benefit any time-strapped college student (whose diet directly impacts the energy needed to be a successful student) immensely to spend even fifteen minutes looking up FDA or WHO guidelines, as the daily values on food labels are certainly not one-size-fits-all. For those rethinking their eating habits more seriously, UChicago also has an on-site, yet woefully under-consulted dietician (dining-dietitian@uchicago.edu) who can help interpret this information. 

The ethical and environmental implications of our diets are equally important. Considering the environmental costs of meat production and terrible living conditions for livestock, the justifications for going vegetarian or vegan makes “What shouldn’t I eat?” much easier to answer than its opposite. 

While I’m not suggesting that we should all become vegans and eat only what we grow ourselves on our personal, ethical, emission-free farmlands, it’s undoubtedly more difficult to eat ethically and responsibly today than it has ever been, especially on a UChicago student’s schedule. While it is easy to complain, I can’t help but laud the scientific progress and dissemination of knowledge that allows us to live more informed and healthy lives. As students accustomed to close reading, we have every capability—and necessity—to take a deeper look into what we eat, where it comes from, and how it affects our health. Reading the fine print on labels may seem like an ineffectual action, but it’s a start towards healthier living, and more important to our college careers than we often believe.

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