People, So Confused by Nutrients

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Photo: Roman Marzinger/Corbis

Studies (and headlines about said studies) often suggest links between nutrients in food and wonderful health benefits. The supplement industry likely thrives off this information, according to Time, but new research published in the Journal of Health Psychology illustrates a problematic side effect: People think nutrients are doing the work, not the healthy foods that house them.

For the study, researchers at Cornell University described the diet of a fictional man, Steve, to 114 college students. Half of the participants were told that Steve consumed lots of healthy nutrients — specifically, potassium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, calcium, and iron — while the other half learned that he ate a lot of whole foods like bananas, fish, oranges, milk, and spinach. (Those foods happen to be well-known for the five nutrients listed above.) The authors asked participants to rate Steve's disease risk and those in the nutrient group said he was less likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer than did those in the whole foods group.

The authors wrote that their findings "suggest a tendency toward reductionist thinking when assessing health consequences." Cue people taking fish-oil supplements for the supposed heart-health benefits, even though several large meta-analyses have found there's no evidence to support that they lower your risk for heart attack or stroke. What can help? Eating actual fish.