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Should we trust the nutrition information we see online?

Ever wondered which foods can help you lose weight? Have you been offered a supplement that cures cancer? Or boosts libido? If you answered yes then you are not alone.

A growing number of people are becoming more conscious of what they eat and how it affects their daily lives. Experts have identified different reasons for this growth in “food IQ’ but most agree that this has been facilitated by easy access to the internet and the growing influence of social media.

Over the ten-year period from 2005 to 2015 Google searches on “best foods for” shot up over 100%. The Google search for the best foods for acid reflux alone increased over 900%! An increased awareness of what we eat is a very good thing. But, as with all good things, it comes with its attendant challenges. This article will seek to unpack this issue and suggest solutions tailored for the Zimbabwean context. 

Why do we have so many nutrition products these days?

The short answer is that we all need to eat, and where there is a need there is opportunity. In 1804 there were one billion people in the world and this number doubled by 1927. Less than 100 years later we have over six billion people on the same earth. Six billion mouths to feed! More than half of them young and discerning. This has created a large global market for food in general and many large conglomerates have not missed this. In the US alone, the food industry spent $240 billion on advertising in 2019. And most of these adverts end up on your timeline on social media and the internet. 

Downstream industries have also hopped onto the gravy train, we see fad diets promising to achieve amazing results for little to no effort. More recently we have seen the emergence of ‘magic concoctions’ designed to prey on our insecurities and worst fears. Just as easily as it is to find experts who diagnose you with the worst possible ailment online, you can find another offering a quick solution.

The reason is simple- the internet belongs to every Jack and Jill! Anyone with a camera and data can post a video online. This is made worse by the fact that the food industry is not as well-regulated as the medical or pharmaceutical industry, at least not in all countries. I could sell you a bottle of supplements from anywhere in the world, even if it’s illegal in your own country. The global dietary supplement industry alone is expected to be worth $230 billion by the year 2027. 

What can we do to protect ourselves?

We need to keep three things in mind when we assess claims on the items we consume. The first one is that business is there to make money- as much of it as they can – and usually at any cost. The second thing we need to know is that we are ultimately responsible for our own lives. Then finally, remember that if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is. We need to be as skeptical as possible when dealing with information on our health, and what we eat is key to our health.

Remember, marketers always prey on your weaknesses and insecurities to make money, and your desire for convenience. I have seen many shops selling expired products and getting away with it simply because customers are too busy to read. I have also seen consumers buy products labelled in foreign languages and gulp them down with no worry at all. Finally, I recommend that we make use of the resources available to us to fact-check the claims made by marketers. Consult your health professional, it may save your life. 

Why should you consult a professional?

In Zimbabwe, most health titles are protected. One cannot call themselves a pharmacist or physiotherapist simply because they feel like it. Many other titles are protected including the following; Medical Doctor, Radiographer, Midwife and the ones I will focus on today- Nutritionist and Dietician. There is a law which regulates the use of these titles and it exists to protect the public.

One needs to go through several checkpoints to use any of these titles (the list is not exhaustive). To use the title, one must successfully undergo an approved training program and then register with the licensing authority. To practice they need to undergo regular training, so they stay abreast with trends in the industry. They also need to maintain high ethical standards. This means that when you walk into a room with a licensed Nutritionist or Dietician you are assured, they are adequately trained and are in good standing with the regulators at that time. 

Clients can demand and inspect the license to practice and they are able to contact the regulator and verify authenticity of qualifications. The regulator is also empowered to investigate unethical practices by the same practitioner. Common ethical violations you will see are pictures of clients with certain conditions (before and after) used to market or promote a product. 

Why is it important to regulate the nutrition profession?

I will address this with an anecdote. When you want to build a house, you must secure a piece of land pegged by licensed surveyors and a plan drawn by the appropriate professional. Your building is built by a professional and inspected at various levels by a licensed professional. Your plumbing is designed and laid by a licensed plumber. A plumber undergoes training and trade testing to achieve journeyman status. Now, if you can do all that just to safely dispose of your waste, how much are you prepared to do for what you put in? 

In conclusion, I advise each of us to verify claims made of the foods and diets we are interested in. There are many ways to verify the claims including checking whether the person making the claim is legally authorized to do so.

Get in touch (0774617415/nyathictsn@gmail.com) and I will give you the contact details of the nutritionist or dietician closest to you. You can also check whether your professional is licensed by making a quick call to the Allied Health Practitioners Council 0242747482/registrations@ahpcz.co.zw). 

Brief Bio:

Craig Nyathi is a Nutritionist registered with the Allied Health Practitioners Council of Zimbabwe. He has over ten years’ experience practicing public health nutrition in Zimbabwe. He writes in his personal capacity. 

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