The panel’s moderator, Corby Kummer, noted that participants often skew results just by having good intentions. “It’s really hard to think of what you actually ate with any kind of accuracy,” said Kummer, the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Food and Society Program and a senior editor at The Atlantic. “You immediately forget, and you do what everyone does on food surveys, which is lie.”
In spite of study-to-study variation, most nutritionists and researchers agree on the broad strokes. Eating a variety of fresh, minimally processed foods and plenty of fruits and vegetables is one of the simplest ways humans can bolster their health, even if that reality isn’t as new or exciting as many journalists writing about nutrition might wish it were. (Sorry.)
New research on the variation of people’s responses to particular foods may also explain the circuitous route science has taken to establishing how certain foods affect health. “Everybody assumed there was this one diet which was somehow magic for all people, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Eric Topol, another panelist and the executive vice president of Scripps Research. “Finally, what we can acknowledge is that we have this unique response to food, and it’s not just the gut microbiome, but that’s a big part of the story.”
Topol said he was so interested in how the gut microbiome—the ecosystem of microorganisms that live in the human digestive system—impacts health that he signed up for a study with the Weizmann Institute of Science to spend a week measuring his own body’s response to food. What he found shocked him: Oatmeal was spiking his glucose to potentially dangerous levels, but bratwurst was rated as an A-plus food for him.
“Is it gonna change my whole nutritional plan? No,” said Topol, who, as a cardiologist, indicated a reticence to eat a bunch of sausage. “I think what it indicates is we’re chipping away at this [mystery].” More than ever, it’s looking like nutritional science is so variable because individual people respond to individual foods in vastly different ways.
Research into the gut microbiome and what it can reveal about personalized nutritional response is still in its infancy, and both Aschwanden and Topol urged caution when evaluating microbiome-testing services that are currently available to consumers, because they simply don’t have the evidence necessary to back up their use. For now, it’s wait and see—and then wait and see more.
“I think too often the public has sort of been given this view that science is a magic wand that turns everything into truth,” Aschwanden said. “But it turns out science is very often wrong on the way to being right.”
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amanda Mull is a staff writer at The Atlantic.