Deciphering Media Stories on Food and Nutrition
- June 15, 2015
Let’s face it. Sensational media headlines are catchy but don’t always tell the whole story. One day eggs are good for you, and the next day they cause heart attacks. Science is a painstaking and deliberate process, which doesn’t always fit well in the fast-paced, newer-is-better world of the media. The bottom line is that nutrition science is continuously evolving and most of the time it’s not black and white. There are clear limitations that prevent us from fully understanding nutrition science (e.g. scientists cannot ethically deprive humans of essential nutrients). Contradictions in research results do occur and are a healthy part of the scientific process.
When it comes to research on nutrition and health, media reports are often responsible for much of the public’s frustration when it comes to dietary guidance. With emphasis on short, “newsworthy” pieces, the media often only report the results of single studies, and many stories are chosen simply because the results run contrary to current health recommendations.
Don’t get discouraged! In many cases it only takes a few incisive questions to get at the heart of a news story. The most crucial thing to keep in mind is that one study does not necessarily represent an entire body of research. Whenever you see a news story keep these questions in mind:
- Does the story report on the results of a single scientific study? Very rarely is one study influential enough to merit a change in dietary guidance.
- How large is the study? Large studies often provide more reliable results statistically but are harder for researchers to control (e.g. imagine how many people cheat in a 10,000 person diet study).
- Was the study in animals or humans? Animals can be very different from humans. The results may or may not be translatable to humans.
- How was the diet assessed? It is almost impossible to control the diet of humans long-term. Good studies will have evidence that their study designs are valid. Survey data and self-reporting of health outcomes are typical of weak studies.
Remember – many nutrients work together (e.g. calcium and vitamin D). Also – if the headline is shocking (e.g. raspberry keytones help you lose 10 lbs. in a week) there’s probably more to the story.