Introduction to Nutrition Science and Information Literacy

If you follow nutrition science in the media for long enough, you’ll start to see recurring themes. You’ll see stories in the news about many of our favorite foods—like eggs, butter, coffee, and chocolate—that seem to flip-flop about whether these foods are good or bad for us. You’ll notice seemingly eternal debates about whether dietary fat and carbohydrates are valuable macronutrients or villians. You’ll watch as particular diets come in and out of fashion—and then back into fashion another decade or two later. And you’ll see countless click-baity stories about the health benefits of eating so-called superfoods, or the dangers of eating others.

Three people sitting at a desk on computers laughing and talking.

Even if you don’t pay much attention to nutrition science in the news, you’ll hear a ton of conflicting opinions and information just by talking to the people around you. Maybe your best friend has gone gluten-free, your dad is on a keto diet, and your coworker swears the Whole 30 diet has been life-changing. They’re all trying to convince you to join them in their latest diets, but your head is swimming. They can’t all be right, and you don’t want to just follow the latest fad. You want to find accurate information that’s based on solid scientific evidence. How can you identify it in a sea of conflicting and overwhelming information? Who can you trust?

It can be hard to filter through it all, especially when it’s attached to strong opinions, emotions, and people trying to sell their product or point-of-view. And yet, we all need to make choices about what to eat, at the very least for ourselves, and often for others. You may have the responsibility of feeding family members in different stages of life, with different needs and preferences. And if you work in the health professions, you may have patients or clients who look to you as a source of reliable information about nutrition. Of course, the problem of conflicting and overwhelming information is not unique to nutrition; you’ll find the same issue in many other health-related fields, and beyond.

Now, more than ever, it’s essential to develop skills in information literacy, including the ability to find information, evaluate whether it is accurate and useful, and apply it effectively. The purpose of this unit is to develop and hone your skills in information literacy as it applies to nutrition. You’ll learn about the scientific method, because it forms the foundation of how we know what we know about nutrition. You’ll learn about the different types of research studies and each of their advantages and limitations. We’ll discuss various sources of information, such as scholarly and popular sources, how each of them can be useful in different ways, and how to evaluate them. We’ll also discuss careers in nutrition and the different types of skills that you’ll find among nutrition experts.

Unit Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you should be able to:

  1. Identify the sequential steps of the scientific method, and understand the importance of reporting research results in peer-reviewed journals and the value of scientific consensus.
  2. Describe the different types of research studies used in nutrition, including the quality of evidence, advantages, and limitations of each.
  3. Describe some of the limitations of nutrition research, including the challenges of studying complex dietary patterns and the influence of industry funding.
  4. Identify the training and experience that leads to expertise in the field of nutrition, as well as career opportunities in the field.
  5. Evaluate sources of nutrition information and distinguish between credible sources and those that are inaccurate or biased.

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Nutrition: Science and Everyday Application Copyright © 2020 by Alice Callahan, PhD; Heather Leonard, PhD, RDN; and Tamberly Powell, MS, RDN is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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