One day you hear about a revolutionary nutritional supplement, but a week later you’re told that same supplement (or diet plan) has horrific side effects. Sound familiar? That’s how things go when nutrition research—or any health research for that matter—is skewed toward selling headlines at the expense of your health (and your wallet). Fear not! You can become an informed consumer of nutrition research just by paying careful attention and asking a few simple questions.
How to be a Healthy Skeptic of Nutrition Information
There is way more nutrition misinformation and fraud in the popular media than you can imagine. The key to becoming an informed consumer is to be a healthy skeptic: Question the information that you hear on a podcast or read about in your newsfeed. This isn’t hard to do; you need only to ask a few key questions. These questions are aimed to help you do two things:
- Enable you to be a better judge of the worth of media hype about nutrition information
- Empower you to determine if and how the latest research and information applies to you
Is this a breakthrough medical discovery? (Hint: Not Likely)
Dramatic breakthroughs and isolated evidence of an “amazing finding” are extremely rare in science. Only when evidence is consistent across a variety of types of studies, from the lab to case studies to clinical trials across diverse populations of people, are we likely to have strong, reliable and valid evidence for a “breakthrough.”
Besides testimonials, what other evidence is there?
If the sole evidence for a product is consumer testimony, without presentation of scientific evidence, then it is safe to suspect that the claims made are not reliable or valid. Now, some product companies will go very far in their presentation of what looks like real good data. This is why you’ve got to go deeper with your questions…
Who’s that scientist?
When study data is reported, look at who conducted the research. Is the researcher affiliated with a university or research institution or with a company or organization that stands to profit? Reliable data does not come from “secret sources” nor does it come from researchers who are stakeholders in the success of the supplement or diet (that would be a conflict of interest—a big no-no in science) Likewise, reliable data does not get displayed in an advertisement or an advertorial.
Finally, reliable and valid data generally come from independent labs that have tested and retested a theory, product, or supplement many times over. In these multiple-testing scenarios, the same results are achieved each time (that’s reliability of the data), using the exact same methods every time (that’s validity of the data).
Is the data limited or extensive?
In research, results that have been replicated by different scientists across a variety of conditions, groups of people, and over time, are much more meaningful than a single study.
Was the finding significant, statistically?
Lots of products will claim significant results, significant findings, or significant “something else”. If the data is not mathematically significant—that is, statistically significant—then all those other “significant descriptions” are just fluff. For a study to reach statistical significance, it means that there was a large enough number of participants in the study to measure an effect of the supplement in those participants, and that effect was sizable enough to be made evident in the data analysis. When it comes to research, the proof is, indeed, in the numbers.
Is there a strong cause-and-effect relationship?
Typically, in research the first type of relationship that scientists explore is correlation. They ask: Does a relationship between two things. For example, a researcher hypothesizes from an observation they made, that people who eat blue olives have lower body fat. She does a small study and learns that yes, there is a relationship between these people who eat a lot of blue olives and having a healthy body fat percentage. WAIT! Don’t rush out to buy jars of blue olives (for one, we made that up)…More importantly, correlation is not the same as causation.
The researcher cannot conclusively state that eating blue olives caused the lower body fat percentage. Further research is necessary to determine cause and effect. The researcher might conduct studies to answer more questions, such as: What is the nutrition profile of the olives? Could it be something in the olives? Are men and women of different ages equally affected? Do these blue olive eaters exercise more than people who don’t eat blue olives? In other words, is there anything else—anything at all—that could possibly explain this relationship between blue olives and body fat? Only when research shows, with statistical significance, that other explanations have been ruled out can a scientist then state with confidence that X caused Y. So, never forget: Correlation does not prove causation.
Was there a placebo or not?
A placebo is an inactive substance or treatment that has no physiological effect. If taking a placebo (a pill or other substance with no physiologically active ingredients) produces the same effect as the supplement or medication it is being compared to, then that supplement or medication isn’t very good. Afterall, taking a fake pill resulted in a benefit! In clinical trials, studies of medicines must prove mathematically that the benefits of taking the medication are statistically significantly better than a placebo. Most nutritional and diet supplements are not tested against a placebo—therefore, you want to question just how effective it really can be.
Who’s in the study?
Think about it this way… If a study is done using mice or observing effects in a petri dish…that’s all good—it is where research must begin, in the lab. As important as that is, it does not necessarily translate to effects in human beings. Those types of studies are an important part of assessing safety and other essential aspects of a medication or supplement before it can be given to people. Once studies have been tested for effects in people, that is when you want to pay attention and ask questions such as:
Who was in the study? Are these folks similar to me? In what ways? If the people in the study are mostly 60-year old farmers from Germany, then the results are likely not applicable to a 33-year-old working mom in the United States. To be clear, we definitely want studies to include diverse groups of people. It is in determining if the results are meaningful for you that you want to see study participants who are similar to you in age, gender identity, lifestyle factors, and other demographics.
Still Confused by Nutrition Research? Ask an Expert
These types of questions will provide you with a solid start in assessing the health information you come across every day. When the media reports research findings and you hear the terms used in this article in their report, then you’ll know that’s a study to pay attention to. You’ll also be able to probe a little deeper to determine how that information may apply to you. If you are ever unsure about how to interpret health or nutrition research, you can bring your questions to a certified health coach here at Generation Fit and be sure to inquire with your personal physician.
At Generation Fit, you’ll meet Moh Koutouby who has walked through the valley of nutrition misinformation and survived the scams, frauds, and empty promises promoted by the diet industry. From his lived experience on the diet merry-go-round, training, and education, Moh has knowledge to share with anyone who has become confused by the media’s mixed messages about diet, exercise, and health. As a certified trainer and health coach, Moh genuinely wants to help you feel your best and love the body you’re in. Schedule a consultation with Moh and give yourself the chance to ditch the nutrition confusion and obtain evidenced-based nutritional guidance that you can count on.
Mayo Clinic: “Nutrition Claims: How to Tell Fact from Fiction.”
NCCIH.gov “Become and Informed Consumer”
MedLinePlus.gov “Evaluating Health Information.”
Today’s Dietician. “Communicating Nutrition Research.”