So how can we cut through all the confusion and determine what information is reliable? It comes down to doing a careful read of the study and following your nose. Experts offer these guidelines.
1. Don’t believe the hype. “A healthy dose of skepticism is always a good idea, especially when a study claims to be a breakthrough or to overturn everything you thought you knew,” renowned nutrition expert Marion Nestle, MPH, PhD, author of Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, explains. “That’s not how science works.”
Articles that fly in the face of conventional wisdom may be headline-grabbing, but according to Liebman, one study alone does not constitute enough evidence to refute what previous studies have found. “The media wants what we call ‘man bites dog’ headlines because that’s what gets readers’ attention — clickbait,” she says.
2. Go straight to the source. If you’re trying to evaluate recent nutrition research, the best practice is to read the study itself. Don’t be intimidated by the jargon and data — if you read the abstract and conclusion, you should be able to get a sense of the research methods and results.
The conclusion will also often place the findings in the context of established knowledge in the field and point to further research that needs to be done. Plus, studies are supposed to list any possible conflicts of interest due to funding.
3. Find outlets you trust. The impulse for media to publish clickbait comes from the pressure to survive in an incredibly competitive environment, Willett explains — but there’s still responsible reporting to be found. Liebman says, “A good reporter will a) disclose any industry funding or industry ties to the researcher, and b) try to get an opinion from a researcher who wasn’t involved in the study or a researcher who can comment on the evidence as a whole.”
4. Check the prevailing wisdom. Liebman recommends looking for endorsements of the research findings from major health authorities, like the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, or the American Diabetes Association. This isn’t a completely foolproof method — these associations are often hampered with limitations of their own (see “Rethinking Heart Health”). But as part of your larger research strategy, seeing what the authorities have to say can offer you some clues.
5. Dig deeper. Most studies will list funding sources in the acknowledgments section, which can reveal who’s sponsoring the research. “If it’s a study on breakfast cereal and weight gain, for example, did the NIH [National Institutes of Health] fund it or did Kellogg’s pay for it?” writes Mark Hyman, MD, in his book Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our Planet — One Bite at a Time. “Google the organization. See who is behind it. Be a sleuth.”
This was excerpted from “The Trouble With Food Studies” which was published in Experience Life magazine.