For the Pro

Faux vs. For Real Research


What do chocolate, soy, eggs, coconut, alcohol and fat all have in common? I know you’re waiting for a punch line, but there’s no joke here.

For real, what links these eats? I’ll tell you: They’re all popular fare that have had research findings take us in one direction, only to have other research findings contradict those earlier recommendations. And maybe new info ping-ponged us back and forth another time or two.

Keeping up is intense, but the nerd in you loves the science-y stuff, so you try to keep up the best you can. Me too, but it ain’t easy!

People have been studying medicine, energy, and various sciences for years, but nutrition is a comparatively young field of study. The closest thing the baby boomer generation had to a registered dietitian in their younger years was a combination of a doctor (who received maybe an hour of nutrition education in their training) and a home economics teacher.

The fact that nutrition research is just starting to scratch the surface means that there are fewer studies that have been done and not a lot of history to support findings. Each juicy research nugget seems to find its way into headlines, and sometimes we form our opinions on findings that need more studying before we should be making conclusions.

We might not get as excited by medical research if it doesn’t relate to our world or Mars research if we’re not that into astronomy…but food, that’s something everyone wants to know about.

While it may not be the sexiest approach, it’s our job to make sense of the headlines and teach our clients how to navigate the maze of info. That’s not always easy.

For example, they told us eggs were good—a complete protein with the highest biological value of amino acids. Then, they told us eggs were bad because they have cholesterol, and cholesterol is bad for our arteries and hearts. They told us that eggs are okay again, because eating cholesterol doesn’t raise our cholesterol (it’s trans fats that are the artery clogging culprit). And actually now maybe studying cholesterol as a risk factor for heart disease isn’t as important as we thought it was. Umm….whaaaaat?!

Here’s how you can being to decipher the confusion in nutrition research:

1. First, take a minute to evaluate. Some of this research needs to be taken with a grain of salt (nutrition joke). Before you believe the research, make sure there is a lot of supporting evidence before calling it gospel. Good research comes from strong sources like universities, major institutions (think NIH and USDA) as well as not-for-profit organizations (American Heart Association and National Cancer Institute).

Doing an online search? Look for .org, .gov, .edu and steer clear of articles that are full of sponsored ads and people trying to sell you things. when possible, find the original article, publication or at least an abstract. Use your info from the source, so you can stick to the published facts, rather than the writer’s interpretation.

2. Consider the study design. The best kind of study is a meta-analysis or “review,” which compares all of the available research on a given topic. A good study is one that can be reproduced with the same or similar results. Animal studies provide clues but don’t provide definitive information on what will happen in humans. Studies should always be peer-reviewed and should look at a representative sample size (you can’t base recommendations on research findings that studied three people). Who was studied also matters—if a study looks at how a supplement affects white women in their 30s, the results show what it means for white women in their 30s, not all people of all ages.

3. Consider the funding source. The best research isn’t sponsored by anyone who has anything to gain from the research results going in their favor. “Sponsored” research has bias because the researchers are getting their cashola from Coca Cola, Kraft, Monsanto or whoever. Even in situations where the study design is solid and researchers are actively trying to do their work independently, evidence shows that the source of the funding inadvertently affects results.



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