Friday, September 7, 2018

John Ioannidis Takes on Nutritional Science

John Ioannidis, the world's leading skeptic of large statistical studies in science, has an opinion piece in the JAMA in which he shreds nutritional science. Excerpts:
Some nutrition scientists and much of the public often consider epidemiologic associations of nutritional factors to represent causal effects that can inform public health policy and guidelines. However, the emerging picture of nutritional epidemiology is difficult to reconcile with good scientific principles. The field needs radical reform.

In recent updated meta-analyses of prospective cohort studies, almost all foods revealed statistically significant associations with mortality risk. . . .

Assuming the meta-analyzed evidence from cohort studies represents life span–long causal associations, for a baseline life expectancy of 80 years, nonexperts presented with only relative risks may falsely infer that eating 12 hazelnuts daily (1 oz) would prolong life by 12 years (ie, 1 year per hazelnut), drinking 3 cups of coffee daily would achieve a similar gain of 12 extra years, and eating a single mandarin orange daily (80 g) would add 5 years of life. Conversely, consuming 1 egg daily would reduce life expectancy by 6 years, and eating 2 slices of bacon (30 g) daily would shorten life by a decade, an effect worse than smoking. . . .

These implausible estimates of benefits or risks associated with diet probably reflect almost exclusively the magnitude of the cumulative biases in this type of research.
The science of diet is just very, very hard:
Individuals consume thousands of chemicals in millions of possible daily combinations. For instance, there are more than 250 000 different foods and even more potentially edible items, with 300 000 edible plants alone. Seemingly similar foods vary in exact chemical signatures (eg, more than 500 different polyphenols). Much of the literature silently assumes disease risk is modulated by the most abundant substances; for example, carbohydrates or fats. However, relatively uncommon chemicals within food, circumstantial contaminants, serendipitous toxicants, or components that appear only under specific conditions or food preparation methods (eg, red meat cooking) may be influential. Risk-conferring nutritional combinations may vary by an individual’s genetic background, metabolic profile, age, or environmental exposures. Disentangling the potential influence on health outcomes of a single dietary component from these other variables is challenging, if not impossible.
And besides the possible bad effects of all this on people worried about their diets, there is also a larger concern:
Nutritional research may have adversely affected the public perception of science.
No kidding.

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