Why you should be more skeptical of nutrition research

Do you ever listen to the news when they say things like “A new study shows that drinking 1 glass of wine per day is the same working out 1 hour at the gym”? Or “eating a handful of chocolate chips a day can actually make you lose weight!”? Do you believe every piece of nutrition research you hear or do you ever question how that study came up with those results? 

One of the biggest problems in nutrition is all of the conflicting research and leaving the general public to decipher what is credible and what isn’t. Everyone can agree that there is always a new study coming out that says X food will make you gain weight, but then next month the same food will make you lose weight! It always seems that this new fad diet going around that is based off of one specific study that resulted in dramatic weight loss and then one spokesperson is trying to make everyone believe this diet will have the same results on everyone. And the news loves nothing more than to talk about nutrition studies that link things we love to do that are considered unhealthy with healthy outcomes (ex- “eating more pasta can actually be better for your health!”). So what really goes on in the nutrition research world and how can you determine which studies are credible? I am not a scientist by any means, but I did take many classes in ethical research and statistical analysis so I can teach you what I know about how to spot studies that may have skewed results. 

1. Be Wary of Drastic Results

A big problem is that everyone love sensational information. For media outlets it creates more attention than just saying, “A new study was released where rats who were given extract from grapes slightly improved their cardiac output.” So it translates into “Drinking 1 glass of wine per day can replace going to the gym!” The nature of research is very slow, which is necessary to make sure the method is safe for the public and that the results are actually credible. A cell study will lead to a rat study which will eventually lead to a human study and then will be repeated until everyone can agree that the nature of the study is safe for the public to replicate and will actually have results that will work for mostly everyone. A preliminary study on rats can’t be translated into meaning the same results for humans. So when somebody tells you to start eating this certain extract because one study showed that it vastly improved their blood flow- ask what were the subjects in the study (cells vs people) and if the study was replicated multiple times with the same results. 

2. Does the study have a control group? 

One basic rule in research is to have a control group. If you don’t know, a control group is a group in a study that doesn’t take part in the research and exists to be able to compare. For example if a study is trying to determine that going to nutrition counseling at work helps people lose weight, they should also have a group that doesn’t go so they can compare what happens if you don’t go to counseling. Is there a reason that not going to counseling could make you lose weight? Maybe the cafeteria at your workplace is offering healthier options that everyone starts eating (regardless if you go to counseling or not). This could mean that everyone loses weight and the reason isn’t from going to counseling. Not having a control group would mean you never know if the weight change is due to something else. 

3. Have the researchers ensured that the results aren’t due to other lifestyle changes? 

One of the biggest issues with nutrition research is that health is made up of so many aspects besides just what you eat. Sleep, stress management, smoking, social engagement, etc all can also improve health. Let’s say that a study shows that people who are vegan weigh less, on average. They determine this by analyzing a group that is vegan and comparing them to a group that isn’t vegan. Yes they technically have a control group, but the group that is vegan may be healthier in other ways besides just what they eat. People who have chosen to be vegan on their own (without being forced to by researchers) probably are more health conscious in general, so they probably practice other heathy habits that the control group doesn’t. They may exercise more or make sure to sleep more which can also lead to weight loss. Therefore it’s difficult to confidently say that being vegan will definitely help you lose weight, because you don’t know if the weight loss is due to other non-diet healthy habits. So when you hear people say “X group is healthier/ weighs less/ has lower blood pressure/ etc than other people” ask them how they determined that and if other factors could contribute. Don’t just eat how that group eats because they weigh less.

There are so many more points to make about nutrition research but for the sake of the length of this post I’ll just leave you with these 3 key points. I want you to know that I’m not trying to say that nutrition research is bad or researchers are corrupt. Research can be very difficult to understand and often the ones who report about the findings are those who don’t understand how research really works. Nutrition research is very very valuable especially to the clinical world where a certain diet could kill you or save your life. Those who have to make decisions about which diets to follow in a hospital or if you have a morbid disease (ex- kidney failure) have reviewed many many studies and throughly made sure that this diet will not harm, but increase the quality of life for those who follow it. This article is to address all the random studies that are released into the public about fad diets or random supplements or how to lose 10 pounds in a week.

Did this article help you understand nutrition research better? Would you like to hear more or analyze specific nutrition articles? Let me know!