Nutrition Research Just Suffered a Major Blow—But the Fundamentals of Healthy Eating Haven’t Changed
Last week, the career of one of the most admired food researchers came to an end. Brian Wansink, founder of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, spearheaded the kind of food and nutrition research that everyday people understood and that journalists clamored to write about. He was all about making easy, small changes that led to healthier choices.
Case in point:
- He published research that showed eating from a larger bowl will likely lead you to eat more.
- Another study suggested that pre-ordering lunch could lead to healthier choices, because that’s what he apparently discovered happened with kids who ordered their school lunch in advance.
- He also authored journal articles that said people filled their grocery baskets with more calories when they shopped on an empty stomach.
All of these studies were published in respectable, peer-reviewed journals. And all of them—and more—were retracted.
In my years as a health and food journalist, I’ve interviewed Wansink many, many times, I’ve cited his research in articles, in story pitches, heck, in casual conversation—because I’m a nerd like that—countless times. So it’s more than a little sad to learn that some of his research is fraudulent.
But more worrisome to me is that the fairly widespread coverage of his downfall pokes holes in and perpetuates skepticism of food and nutrition research as a whole. Plus, the contradictory food and nutrition research chatter is only getting louder and more commonplace.
So if you—likely a health-minded food lover—are finding yourself considering turning a deaf ear to new nutrition and food research headlines, I understand.
But here’s what you shouldn’t lose sight of: Regardless of the way this shakes up nutrition research, and nutrition journalism, many of the fundamentals of healthy eating haven't changed. We still know the basics of what you need to do if you want to eat well, and achieve (or maintain) a healthy weight:
Eat (mostly) real food
Real food is the food you cook with. It generally doesn't come in a box, or contain a laundry list of ingredients. In most instances it delivers legitimate, good-for-you nutrients. For example, homemade quick oats with your own fruit and sweetener added versus a flavored oatmeal packet where you just add water.
Does that mean you can't ever eat a bag of chips, or packaged food? Of course not. But the more occasional you make those choices, the healthier you're likely to be.
Don’t eat too much
There is no scientific contingent suggesting that overeating is healthy, so if you want to be healthy, it's agreed that you should mind how much you consume. In fact, there’s ample research to show that maintaining a healthy weight and (if your calorie intake falls within the national averages) even cutting back a bit is ideal for a longer, healthier life.
Eat mostly plants
There’s also no research that says eating (edible) plants is bad for you. Plants are chock full of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and almost all researchers agree that you should be eating them on the daily. This doesn't mean that you have to go vegetarian—but cutting back on meat, and turning it into a side, or a garnish, will go a long way toward keeping you healthier. And to clarify—plants aren’t just fruits and vegetables, they’re also legumes and whole grains.
Listen to yourself
There may be a lack of scientific cred behind using a smaller bowl, or whether or not ordering ahead helps you make healthier choices. But paying attention to what you are hungry for, and what makes you feel good (also known as being a mindful eater) is still very much a thing. Take the time to discover what works for you. Tune in and take note of what makes you feel satisfied, what inspires you to make healthier choices, and what makes you feel better about yourself—not just for a moment, but long-term.