Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD - TRYING TO FIT NUTRITION INTO FITNESS
October 3, 2010
I cringed when I saw the headline. The American Council on Exercise has partnered with the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System. The relationship between the fitness industry and nutrition has been messy for decades. The track record is dismal between the selling of suspect sport nutritional products and the offering of nutrition advice by people who only think they know.
LESS THAN HEALTHY MATCH BETWEEN FITNESS AND NUTRITION
In mid 1980’s I naively opened my first office at The Marina Athletic Club (MAC) better known for preening in front of mirrors and body building. People worked out, but the emphasis on presentation skewed the focus of many members. I felt like an interloper. Too many members were far more impressed with nutrition advice delivered by their buff trainer than the only person in the room with a legitimate degree in food and nutrition.
The misinformation was abundant and the utilization of “supplements” and illicit drugs was rampant. It was humbling to realize that my advice carried little weight.
About the same time I started teaching a nutrition course through UCLA Extension for folks looking to become certified exercise instructors. The students came with their business cards in hand, “Nutrition Counseling” listed right underneath “Fitness Instructor”. These were people who I watched struggle to pass a basic nutrition course.
I knew that the partnership with MAC was a mismatch. I sighed relief the day I moved my office to TRACC, a sports medicine facility where I was privileged to work with educated fitness professionals.
It is easy to for people who look the part to offer nutrition advice. It is also easy for them to get it wrong. The most obvious sign of an amateur is making an assumption that what works for them personally, will work for anyone else. Personal testimony is a powerful marketing tool—but that doesn’t make the advice useful.
NUTRITION BY THE NUMBERS
I am inherently skeptical whenever the fitness industry presumes to assert itself in the nutrition arena. But I think this partnership between ACE and NuVal™ has the potential to succeed.
NuVal™ Nutritional Scoring System is a method to assess the nutrition value of foods. The NuVal scoring program ranks foods from 1-100 based on their overall nutrition quality – the higher the score, the higher the nutrition. The science behind the system is outlined at the NuVal website.
An algorithm is used to assess each food, comparing positive food components, such as protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals to unfavorable components (think sugar, trans fat, sodium, cholesterol). The score is translated into a rank number. The idea is that if people have a simpler way of assessing the quality of their food purchases, they will inherently purchase more nutritious food.
I like the idea of a simpler way to assess food. The competing nutrition claims on the packaging of food products has become absurd and almost meaningless. There is a problem when cereals that are highly refined and processed can claim “contains whole grain” and the public thinks that is a good food choice.
FREE FROM COMMERCIAL INFLUENCE
I am especially impressed with the effort to eliminate commercial interests from the scientific assessments. All of the scientists who developed the system were screened for potential conflicts. This does not mean there are no problems with the system.
Nutrition science continues to evolve. We do not know everything there is to know. I suspect in the future that they will have to take cholesterol out of the equation.
From the research I review, I have come to believe that cholesterol in food is not part of the problem. But it often takes decades for old ideas to fade and new ones to take hold. I remember one potent quote from a medical journal editorial regarding just this issue. “Sometimes you have to wait for the old guys to die.” Hopefully the NuVal™ system is flexible enough to incorporate what we don’t understand today.
A NUTRITION TOOL WITH POTENTIAL
Nutrition by the numbers is a nice idea—but limited in scope. The designers of the NuVal™ system recognize these limitations, noting that tools can be used effectively and they can be misused. The nutrition score created by the ONQI algorithm is just a number. The developers are quick to note that the NuVal™ system is not a diet, and it certainly isn’t meant to deliver nutrition advice or medical diagnosis.
I see the value in offering a simpler means for consumers to evaluate their food selections. I see opportunity for misuse when ‘nutrition by the numbers’ undervalues the overall diet as well as any one person’s experience with food. I see potential for problems with it is assumed that knowledge is synonymous with behavior.
Nutrition is a complex science and food is a very rich medium. It is important to keep in mind the social and cultural context of food. It is critical to embrace the physiological and metabolic impact of one’s overall diet. It is possible to eat a very poor diet of very nutritious food. Let’s hope that ACE and any other fitness entity that steps into the fitness and nutrition match figures out a way to use the NuVal™ tool responsibly.