I recently posted the following rant on Twitter following a frustrating conversation I had regarding aspartame. I want to use this post to detail and explain why I feel this way.
I am often asked about popular nutrition claims by those around me and I love having those conversations. However, I get irritated when people without a science-based background read inaccurate, sensationalized, overly simplified nutrition information and think they understand the whole field. I think a large part of this is the fault of the media, healthcare practitioners (including Registered Dietitians), as well as self-proclaimed nutrition “experts” portraying information too simply (intentionally or not) or in scare tactic manners in their books, news articles, blog posts, and on their social media channels. The human body is complex and it’s processes very complicated. While it isn’t necessary that everyone know every detailed step of metabolic pathways or physiological processes (let’s be real – NO ONE will ever be able to), I believe it is vitally important everyone know just how complicated it is.
In fact, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s writes in his book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer that looking into the human cell is more complicated than space missions. Think about that. Would anyone dare to claim that space travel is simple? I hope not. Now realize that cellular function (and fyi- your body is composed of cells) is more complex than that!
I have been wracking my brain to think of an everyday life type of analogy that could be used to get across the point that “hey – this stuff is REALLY hard to understand”, but nothing was sufficient enough. Everything was way too simple and would a disservice to my point as well as a disgrace to molecular biologists everywhere. However – here is my attempt:
Cells are Like Homes
Imagine that your home is a cell. Just like homes come in different sizes from studio apartments to gigantic castles and mansions, so do cells in our bodies. Generally speaking, homes are fairly similar in what they contain – space for preparing food, sleeping, storage, bathing, and so on, as well as the basic functions required to “survival and function” – i.e. – paying bills, bringing needed items – such as groceries – in (aka endocytosis), removing waste products by taking out trash (aka exocytosis), and so on. Cells also have the same general structure and composition with various compartments (organelles) and items (intracellular proteins) which make them all similar. However, differences clearly do exist in what different homes contains just as cell’s have varying components. For instance, some homes have libraries filled floor to ceiling with books while others may only have a few scattered about on bookshelves or coffee tables. Some contain multiple refrigerators and freezers and thus can store more fruits, veggies, meats, frozen pizzas, etc. than those with less fridge/freezer space. Some have TONS of rooms, some have few, and all with varying levels of access which control flow of people and items within the home from open-concept all the way to password-protected safe rooms. These differences (and many others) result in different specializations between homes and cell types.
In addition to the interior of homes and cells being different and thus resulting in different functions, the manner in which individual homes and cells communicate with the outside world (extracellular fluid) and other homes (other cells) is another level of complexity added on. Imagine that your doors, windows, vents, cracks in the foundation, etc. serve as points of entry for other people, rodents, bugs, information, and items similar to how a cell uses various plasma membrane channels, transporters, or diffusion through the bilayer to allow in different molecules. Then of course your home can likely communicate with the outside world via telephone, internet, radio, and TV in a completely different manner, just as the cell can send/receive signals to and from other cells. For example, a telephone call is a direct, specific, and fast means of communication with 1 other home (or more if you have conference calling available). This could be considered synonymous with synaptic cell signaling. Or, you could send out a blog post into the great wide cyber world, which will only be seen by people who also have internet access as well as a specific interest in the topic you posted and ability to receive it. This could be considered synonymous with endocrine signaling where 1 cell releases a hormone which travels far away and is only recognized (aka received) by cells with a receptor specific for it. Alternatively you can leave your house and knock on your neighbor’s door to ask them to do something for you, which would be similar to paracrine signaling.
In each of these cases, not only is the signal molecule (the message you are sending out) important in determining what response occurs, but so to are the receptors and intracellular machinery of the other cells (homes). For instance, if you receive your monthly bills via snail mail and you have checks, pens, envelopes, stamps, and enough $ in your bank account, you can easily pay those bills and send them off. If you don’t have sufficient amounts of one or all of those items, responding to that signal will take longer as you will need to come up with whatever is short, such as make more $. This is similar to how the response in cell’s can vary. If the molecules needed to react and generate a response already exist, the cell can respond quickly. If a specific protein is not present in large enough quantities the response will take much longer and gene expression may need to change.
Now extrapolate the above concepts from individual cells and cell-cell communication to the entire world (or entire body) and you can see it becomes even more complex. There are different regions of the world just as there are different organs and organ systems in the body. Then think about how various regulatory agents dictate aspects of your life and function of your home (must use certain materials in building, must have smoke detectors, must pay tolls to travel via car across this bridge, must do this, must do that…and so on). Well all bodily processes are also subject to regulation…and even the regulatory molecules are under the control of other regulatory molecules. It is INSANELY complicated!
If you want a picture example, which only partially gets across the point of this complexity, look at this image (click here) from Cell Signaling looking solely at Insulin Receptor signaling. While it is true that insulin binding an insulin receptor causes glucose uptake, it is also not nearly as simple as that. Several other ‘players’ are involved, all dictating how the cell responds.
Hopefully the above example gets my point across and makes you realize the following:
1) The human body is incredibly complex and thus no one is truly an expert on all things health, nutrition, fitness (or whatever it is they are claiming to be an expert in).
2) Often times attempts to simplify nutrition/health information into black/white type statements (i.e. – carbohydrates are fattening) or labeling foods/nutrients we consume into ‘good’ v. ‘bad’ or ‘healthy’ v. ‘unhealthy’ dichotomous categories is likely a sure way to pass along inaccuracies.
One final point. Don’t take this to mean that if someone asks you for dietary advice to fit their nutrient needs, lifestyle, preferences, and will help them reach their goals that you must give them all of the information from a semester long nutrition course 1st (or entire degree first). Not at all. In fact, that is something that should be provided in a simple and straightforward manner. “Eat all 3 macronutrients in evenly spaced intervals throughout your waking hours from a variety of food sources.” My point is don’t attempt to bring in scientific information to support your recommendations in an overly simplified manner (i.e. – “research shows saturated fats are GOOD, not bad, put butter in your coffee”) as that is where the inaccuracies creep in and get passed along. This creation of ‘mutant’ (aka inaccurate) information and its spread leads to problems for ourselves and society as a whole in a manner similar to how hyperactive mutant forms of Ras (a GTPase protein) are resistant to regulation by Ras GAPS (GTPase activating proteins), which would normally inactivate the protein (I know, that seems odd based upon its name…but trust me), and thus promote the development of cancer….
I hope this post was both helpful and informative. Until next time…