Food, facts, & fiction The media's role in student diets

Cassandra Lee

(Stephanie Ngo / The McGill Tribune)

Waiting patiently on the centre of a table sits a large bowl of homemade gravy, the warm smell of turkey-stuffing wafts through the room, and hot steam rises from the garlic mashed potatoes; it’s Thanksgiving. It is a perfect time to give thanks for what everyone truly loves—food. Dinner is not for one but for four: A vegetarian, a self-prescribed gluten-free, a paleo diet follower, and a vegan. Looks like turkey stuffing is off the menu; the only thing that can be eaten by all are the Brussels sprouts—no salt, no butter, baked not fried.

This phenomenon is quite common, especially in university settings like McGill. Food is an obsession, infecting all forms of media: Popular fitness magazines, diet blogs, and food Instagrams inform people of all things related to diet and nutrition. No longer are parents the only ones shoving nutritional guidelines down their children’s throats—university students are more concerned with what they consume than any generation before. Who can blame them? They grew up in a world where over 60 per cent of adults are classified as overweight or obese.  From juice to chocolate cleanses, it seems every type of food can make or break a diet. 

Everyone seems to have varying answers what diet to adopt. For example, Dr. Loren Cordain, a global leading expert on paleolithic diets and founder of the paleolithic movement, believes that the culprits of our obesity epidemics and health problems are whole grains, dairy, and processed foods. Over the past two years, the ‘paleo diet’ has become part of the most Googled nutritional regime, with celebrities everywhere endorsing it. From Matthew McConaughey to Miley Cyrus, superstars and students alike have all got a taste of this new diet fad. The paleo diet makes claims of significantly decreasing cardiovascular risk factors, aiding weightloss, and promoting a whole host of other health benefits by advocating for the eating habits of early hunter-gatherers. Food processes developed later in evolutionary history such as grain and dairy products, salts, sugars, and processed foods. Concurrently, Cordain promotes foods such as grass-fed meat, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. Under such restrictive regimes, it’s hard to believe this caveman craze could be the answer to society’s nutritional woes.

(A paleo diet is mostly comprised of vegetables and meats /

The co-founder of the McGill chapter of Spoon University—a digital food publication for university students—Liza Levitis, U2 Cognitive Science student, decided to try out the paleo diet after reading about it online prior to entering university, by following recipes and advice from various internet sources. 

“Though I adhered to a pretty strict paleo diet for the entirety of a summer, I found that it was more difficult to maintain in university,” Levitis said. “Everyone reacts to the [diet] differently, and I decided to re-introduce grains little by little to see how I’d react.” 

As a science student, Levitis is critical of online information and urges students to be cautious when conducting personal research in the cyber world.

 “With the plethora of diet fads out there, ordinary people often jump on the bandwagon of starting recipe blogs,” she said. “[They] simultaneously weave in their stances on ‘superfoods,’ what to and not to eat, [and more].  Most of these bloggers don’t have a degree in nutritional science or even a basic university-level science background.”

For many McGill students, university is the first opportunity to have complete control over their diet.  Searching for answers on what to eat, many students turn to the internet and friends for advice. Students live in a hub of internet resources from BuzzFeed to fitness bloggers. Media biases coupled with internet accessibility result in the portrayal of nutrition as a mix of fact and fiction; the difficult part is determining what is accurate. Scientific data is also often misconstrued in the media—depending on the student’s scientific background and knowledge about nutrition, such resources can negatively influence ideas of healthy diets and food.

Whether it is for weight loss or future health resolutions, many discredit the Paleo diet style, critiquing the rationality of using human ancestors’ diets as a basis for reasoning. Evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk writes in her book Paleofantasythat restricting particular foods on the basis that human bodies have seen little biological change over the last thousand years is just objectively incorrect. Rapid evolution within the human genome has occurred following the paleolithic era, debunking the Paleo diet’s main arguments. For example, a single base change in human DNA occurred thousands of years ago that allowed for the complete digestion of milk, contrary to the arguments laid out by the diet’s followers. 

Another example of a fad diet that isn’t fully based on scientific evidence is the gluten-free craze that has been mesmerizing health fanatics for several years. In 2011,  Dr.William Davis, a cardiologist, published Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health a book outlining a diet based on the principles of eliminating products such as breads and cereals, and managing carbohydrates to promote steady weight loss and an overall healthier lifestyle. 

(Many recent diet trends have targeted the protein gluten found in wheat. /

In an airing of Jimmy Kimmel Live, various people on a gluten-free diet were asked what gluten was—not one could answer correctly, but they were all pretty confident about why they chose to eliminate it. As it turns out, gluten, the two-part protein found in wheat, rye, and barley actually has inconclusive effects on weight loss. According to Dr. Daniel A. Leffler, director of clinical research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, gluten-free diets are not necessarily healthier, and removing gluten from your diet will not necessarily yield any health benefit. Gluten can have negative effects on different individuals with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance; however, while only approximately one per cent of Canadians have celiac diseases, the number of individuals on diets that restrict gluten is relatively higher.   

At the end of the day, many individuals want to find a magic food that will relieve chronic illness risks such as cancer or heart disease, and also give them a lean, healthy body; however, a quick food fix is never going to be the solution. Moreover, it is dangerous to advertise such silver bullets. The average young person with no background in nutritional science is easily misinformed because of such trends publicized in the media. Nutrition gurus guide the public through the trends, but they only propagate best guesses or information that large food or diet industries are feeding them. It only takes one Google search to find an array of conflicting collections of dietary opinions written by scientists and nutritionists, or false information espoused by politicians, bloggers, models, and food industries. 

(Stephanie Ngo / The McGill Tribune)

In nutritional epidemiology, the study of the impact of diet on humans’ health, researchers have reached a relatively similar consensus on the long-term effects of many foods on health.  The majority agree that eating a balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is advantageous, and eating too much red meat is not.  However, many researchers critique nutrition as a pseudoscience, because studies are constantly overturned and conclusions are frequently changing. Yet, in no scientific field are hypotheses consistently proven the first time around—information is cycled and reformed because of new developments in technology or methods. 

Research published in the International Journal of Epidemiology  has used observational case studies to conclude that, for example, increasing fish, fibre, and polyunsaturated fat consumption, while decreasing foods high in trans and saturated fat, can dramatically reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Naturally, these conclusions have limitations, mainly due to the complexity and sheer volume of food intake over time. While these findings do not  always translate well into reliable research papers, the restrictions of such studies do not discredit the soundness of the science.

In addition, nutritionists’ research capabilities are often limited. Randomized controlled allocated diets—wherein a researcher will assign a diet type to a subject and observe effects on weight loss or another interesting variable—are usually the best way for an investigator to test a hypothesis. However, different variables such as exercise and environmental factors are impediments to collecting completely accurate data. Since studies often rely heavily on the individuals’ ability to report what they ate, it is difficult to get unbiased and reliable data. Credible studies are extremely expensive as subjects tend to become uninterested and want to drop out. Governments also do not allocate enough funding to support longer trials. The American National Institutes of Health reports that $2.2 billion was spent on nutrition and obesity research in 2012, relative to medical research which comprises $30.1 billion annually..

When it comes to the media and consumer population, nutritional research is forced into applications to create diet schedules, weight loss regimes, and medical disease treatments. Companies and diet industries screen available research and select studies that influence people to believe that there are new and better ways to consume food, using magazines, tabloids, and the media at large.  By embellishing findings or not basing claims in any scientific evidence at all, the media allows the public to extrapolate information from inconclusive or irrelevant research, creating their own misguided food movements.

(Joe Schwarcz is the Director at the McGill office for Science and Society /

Dr. Joe Schwarcz, chemistry professor and director of the Office of Science and Society at McGill University, is a well-known speaker on many misunderstood scientific topics, from cosmetics to baked goods. His most recent book, Monkeys, Myths, and Molecules, critically examines how the media influences scientific facts and demystifies common reasoning errors in everyday life. Something he stresses is the importance of critical reasoning when students are sifting through information online. 

“The basic message in nutrition is to eat mostly plant products and to not eat too much,” he said. “Be suspicious of any diet that strays from this basic notion.”

During their university careers, many students will experiment with different types of diets from stripping meals of meat, dairy, and gluten, to various combinations  of raw foods, or even restricting salts and sugars completely. Though a huge variety of different types of diets exist, Schwarcz notes that experimenting with different nutritional schemes is not necessarily a negative thing. 

“There is little danger in trying any of the gimmicky diets because the evidence is that people don’t try them for very long,” he said.

In addition to restrictions for health and fitness goals, it is quite common for students to have various levels of intolerances and allergies towards many popular food items such as gluten and dairy.

Hannah King, U2 Pharmacology, is allergic to wheat and lactose and has adapted to the changes in her diet. Last year, after several attempts at treating her irritable bowel syndrome on her own, she consulted a holistic specialist who conducted an allergy test and confirmed an intolerance to wheat and dairy products. The increase in gluten-free products is something she has noticed quite in popular student grocery stores such as Metro or Eden.  

“It’s quite easy to find various products that adhere to my dietary restrictions,” she said.

Gluten intolerance, also called non-celiac gluten sensitivity is neither a wheat allergy or celiac disease. Instead, it is characterized by intestinal symptoms related to the digestion of products containing the gluten protein. Several studies suggest a relationship between gluten intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome. 

Though the study of such intolerances is still growing, epidemiological data cannot draw strong conclusions as of yet. While many people self-diagnose their own sensitivity, clinical evidence in support of these links have yet to emerge; simply put, it’s still too early to draw firm conclusions on these claims.

Using a good diet to improve well-being is a fantastic goal for the public—the food that humans eat undoubtedly has profound effects on our bodies. But it is important to remember that proactive eating is worthless without proper research and critical thinking.  One must crucially examine diets by researching in-depth studies, and nutrition is a dynamic science—generalized diets are therefore not designed for quick fixes.

In a landscape with many contradictory theories and suggestions, it’s easy for students to get lost. Schwarcz recommends the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) as a reliable source. CSPI produces a monthly magazine that separates the sense from nonsense through articles and studies published in the field of science. Since the early 1970s, the group prides itself on educating the public on science-based research and advocates for science-based policies in government and public health affairs.  

All that remains clear is how delicious a diverse thanksgiving table looks, turkey stuffing and all. As to whether it’s the vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, or paleo  dieter who is the healthiest, there is no clear answer. Whether that’s taking  a little stuffing and a lot of Brussels sprouts, or eating salmon and kale, the only rule to follow is to take everything in moderation and think critically about what you read.