How do you know what is healthy – really?

Easy, right? For example, most people probably agree that eating wild berries is beneficial. Blueberries, lingonberries, and other goodies from the forest, slowly and naturally matured and just loaded with health. Many health effects have also been documented through research. Uncomplicated, one might think. But those who dive deeper into the question may begin to think about what, exactly, is so healthy with these particular berries. A single lingonberry contains several thousand different kinds of molecules – fibers, antioxidants, acids, bitter substances, fats, and much more. How can you then know exactly which substances and combinations of substances may have a health effect? And the whole thing is further complicated because different kinds of lingonberries can grow under different conditions, be picked in different ripening stages, be stored in different ways, etc. To most of us, this may seem unimportant. A lingonberry is a lingonberry. But for those who want to present research results based on actual effects of, for example, an individual berry or some other food, the reality is much more complicated. 

The clinical study is an essential tool for the food researcher who wants to find out how we are affected by what we eat. In simple terms, such a study is based on a group of people who eat in a certain way for a specific time—for example, a diet high in lingonberries. The food’s effect on the participants is usually measured continuously through, for example, samples of blood and body fluids and through the participants’ own valuations. When it comes to foods that affect blood sugar regulation, it is also common with psychological tests that measure brain function at fixed times after a meal. The results are then compared with a group that has eaten “as usual.” The differences between the groups constitute the result and make it possible to claim that something has a clinically proven health effect. But no matter how careful you are with your study, there will always be distractions. For example, it is complicated to precisely control what the participants eat and drink in general or how they are affected by other factors such as sleep quality, stress level, age, ethnicity, and many other things. Therefore, to achieve reasonable certainty, repeated studies pointing in the same direction are often required. Given this, it can sometimes be frustrating to see how flippant, for example, some tabloids and magazines and various influencers hook on to different trends and present both diets and individual foods as good for health.

An example is the Acai berry, which in Sweden has been marketed as a super berry, loaded with useful antioxidants and suitable for, among other things, dieting. In experimental studies, the same berry has been shown to contribute to fatty liver in mice. And in its country of origin Brazil it is given to people who need to GAIN weight. Another example is the so-called dry fasting. Physicians say is a way to starve oneself, which can lead to serious heart problems and blood clots. But this hasn’t stopped a prominent Swedish influencer to present it as the “thing” if you want to cleanse your body and feel good. For those interested in advice and recommendations about food and health, the media landscape is a jungle, and it is easy to get lost. What is healthy one week may be forgotten or even life-threatening one week later. Criticism of sources is necessary, although it is not always so easy. It is difficult to draw far-reaching conclusions from studies with a focus on showing specific relationships. But they are still crucial for building knowledge in the long run. 

My own advice is simple: Listen to your body. It’s the expert at telling you what makes you feel good. And don’t forget to take lingonberries to the meatballs, or whatever you like to eat. Preferably preserved uncooked with some sugar. I am absolutely sure both that they taste good and that they do good for your body.

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