It seems like every other day I read about a new health and nutrition study that conflicts with the guidance that’s been reported before. How do I know what to trust as sound research and advice?
A quick skim of the food-related headlines on any major news site might leave you throwing up your hands up in the air, unsure what to eat. Nutrition is not as straightforward as most would like, and it can be difficult to decipher between sound advice and information you should ignore. Nutrition researchers are discovering new information regularly, and our understanding of how different foods affect our health is constantly evolving. Pair this with the media’s appetite for clickbait headlines, and you may experience whiplash trying to make positive changes to your diet.
But instead of throwing in the towel, keep the following in mind when you see headlines like “Exercise Can Cancel out the Booze” or “Sugar is Definitely Toxic” appear on your news feed.
- Consider the bigger picture. One study does not make a finding a “fact.” However, if a study contributes to a group of findings that show similar results, there is a good chance that the current report has some validity. For example, a strong body of research shows that exercise helps cognitive function. If a new study is published showing that exercise is actually harmful for your brain, take a second look with a dose of skepticism.
- Ask yourself: does the finding make sense? Applying a little common sense can go a long way. For example, it’s well accepted that vegetables are good for us. If you see an article saying otherwise, dig a little deeper.
- Look for details of how the study was conducted. Assess whether the news reports include how the study was conducted and whether it is credible (i.e., the study is a randomized control trial or has a large sample size, etc.). While each study may have value toward painting a bigger picture of a scientific landscape, not all studies have the same “weight” in terms of making broad, conclusive scientific statements. Either rely on news sources that do their scientific homework when reporting on studies, or do your own.
- Understand the limitations of nutrition research. A lot of studies rely on people to self-report what they eat, which can be problematic. Also, humans don’t eat, exercise, or live in a bubble, so even the best-executed studies still won’t give us the full picture.
- Read beyond the headlines. Did you know that in many cases the author of the article didn’t actually write the headline? Headlines are written by editors to get your attention, which often only tells a small part of the story. Even just reading the first paragraph usually isn’t enough. Read the entire article, or better yet, multiple sources to get the full picture.
- Look for the author’s credentials or the credentials of the people interviewed in the article. Ideally they have a PhD in a related field, RDN (or RD), MD or other relevant health credential. In some cases, those writing the articles may not have a background in nutrition science and are not trained to assess the research thoroughly. Additionally, look for interviews with well-known health professionals in the field that can provide context.
- See who funded the study. If the news report does not include who funded the study, look it up. If an industry or group with a vested interest in the results funded the study, you may want to dig a little deeper (and keep the first tip in mind).
Remember, nutrition is not one size fits all. Use research to inform some of your choices, but the best recommendation comes from knowing what works for you personally. Consider working with a registered dietitian who can give you personalized recommendations if you need more guidance.
At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. That’s why we have a team of registered dietitian nutritionists ready to answer your nutrition questions about which food choices will help you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. Email your questions and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org