Being able to critically assess the information that we come across in the media is, in my opinion, one of the most important skills we can gain in today’s information-flip-flopping world. Certainly one of the areas it can make a lot easier to navigate is making decisions about the food we choose to eat.
In my work I get a lot of questions about various foods, food products, herbs or supplements that people have been reading about online, in magazines, or elsewhere. And a lot of the confusion that happens around what is – or is not – healthy to eat comes from the fact that you can look up almost any given food and find an opinion to support the healthiness, or unhealthiness of it. “Clickbait” titles don’t help either – often blithely stating that foods that we have always believed are healthy actually may be killing us – or on the other extreme – ones we have been told to avoid are actually health foods that you are missing out on at your own risk! So, how do we find the truth?
I have been just as frustrated as the next person, but at school I learned some skills around finding, reading and assessing nutritional studies, and since I do a lot of ongoing reading and study, I have gotten pretty good at quickly assessing whether a headline is worth paying attention to, and how much weight to actually put into any given study. Here are a few tips that might make things a bit easier to navigate:
- If you are looking at an article or webpage that makes some kind of claim about a food, whether good or bad, look for resources. Any article with claims worth paying attention to will reference the studies they are using to make their claims. There may be links to other articles, but if you can, click through and keep digging down to an original peer-reviewed study.
- When you get to a peer-reviewed article describing a study*, look to see 1) who were the researchers who did the study 2) if there are any conflicts of interest (e.g. is it a study about the health benefits of dairy designed and performed by someone who sits on the dairy board), and 3) who paid for the study. Also consider whether the results are consistent with other research in the field. If it’s not, further digging may be required to find out why these results are so different.
- *A peer-reviewed article has been critically read and reviewed by scientists in the same field, and they have had the opportunity to judge the scientific merit of the study. If a study has not been peer-reviewed, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is flawed, but it does mean that it has not been laid out for this scrutiny. Having said all of that, that by no means indicates that peer-reviewed studies have no capacity for bias. Dr. Michael Greger of nutritionfacts.org has published extensively on this topic.
- An example: here is a study that concludes that high consumption of eggs is not harmful to people who have Type II Diabetes. All the research I have read in the past links consumption of eggs to a higher risk for Type II Diabetes, as well as cardiovascular disease risk and certain types of cancer, so a red flag was immediately raised for me. I started to look into it, and noticed that in the acknowledgements one of the research designers (TPM) acts as an advisory member to the Egg Nutrition Council and Nestlé Nutrition, and has received payments for lectures from Novo Nordisk and Astra Zeneca. In addition to that, the study was supported by a research grant from The Australian Egg Corporation.
- There are dozens of examples of this…here’s another one: http://nutritionfacts.org/video/bold-indeed-beef-lowers-cholesterol/ …and so one of the most important things to realize is that a single, stand-alone study is not considered sufficient evidence to conclude decisively about any issue, one way or another.
- Realize that nutrition research is ongoing. New studies are always being done, and new information is always emerging – this is a life-long learning journey we are all on! So keep on top of the latest research. One of the easiest ways to do that is to keep an eye on Dr. Michael Greger’s blog nutritionfacts.org – he is constantly publishing updates on the latest in nutrition research. Nutritionfacts is a strictly non-commercial, science-based public service with the objective of providing access to the latest nutrition research. You can find out more about the organization and Dr. Greger here: http://nutritionfacts.org/about.