By Dr Adam Collins – Form’s Head of Nutrition and Program Director for the MSc and BSc Nutrition courses at the University of Surrey. A qualified nutritionist for nearly 20 years Dr Collins is also a PhD in energy expenditure and body composition. His research interests lie in exercise nutrition, body composition, exercise intensity and energy balance, intermittent fasting and timing of food around exercise.
A strong foundation of core sciences
In order to understand nutrition one must be well versed in the core science. Prior to university all students must have studied at least 2 science A level subjects, to include A level Biology, and ideally Chemistry.
In addition they all gain a highly competent understanding of physiology, biochemistry, microbiology, cell biology and molecular biology. The key point is that our nutritionists are scientists, first and foremost.
That nutrition is complicated
Often nutrition is condensed into simplified messages and sound bites, and portrayed as a common sense, “soft” science that anyone can understand. What students soon appreciate is that the study of nutrition is very difficult because the impact of food and nutrition is so multifactorial.
It is very different to medicine in that you provide a pill or medicine and you have a definitive effect. Food is not a pill. The interaction of diet and lifestyle is incredibly complex and to study nutrition is to study from the molecular level right through to the public health impact. As such, our academics spend entire careers dedicated to studying the subject.
How to undertake research and appraise evidence
To understand this, all nutrition students are trained in how to critically appraise the evidence. With so much scientific evidence available it is important to understand the strength and context of any research in the area and how this contributes to our overall understanding.
To do this, students must be familiar with the strength of evidence as it currently exists and appraise new evidence in light of this. In addition, all students undertake their own original research, to fully appreciate the research process and the limitations of evidence.
Students therefore base their understanding on the consensus evidence base, and NOT cherry picking evidence to suit a particular argument.
New frontiers of the discipline
New technologies and developments in other disciplines have led to new frontiers in nutrition research, some of which has translated into practice, but most are still in their infancy of understanding.
Nutrition students are taught by, and work alongside, other disciplines, and gain first hand insight into these new areas. For example, nutritigenetics and nutrigenomics. Chorobiology/chrononutrition, and interplay between exercise and nutrition. It is important that they understand the origins of these new frontiers and how they may be developed in the future, given current insight and limitations.
How to maintain the integrity of nutrition
Many people call themselves nutritionists, and a lot of people who write, present or blog about nutrition are not necessarily qualified in the subject. This includes medical professionals (e.g. cardiologists, GPs), who do not have any formal training in nutrition, nor fully understand the complexities of the subject (see points 2,3 and 4).
To add further confusion, many people the public are exposed to are actually nutritional therapists, rather than nutritionists. Nutritional therapy is a complimentary therapy, using food and nutrients to help the body’s natural healing. The way they are trained and appreciate the evidence is very different to what has been described.
As academics, our most important legacy is to equip our nutritionists with the integrity and the tools to maintain the scientific credibility of the profession. Often this involves correcting misinterpreted evidence, combatting oversimplifications and falsehoods, and acting as custodians of the science. In short, be wary of what you read or hear, things are never that simple.