Making Sense of Nutrition News, Part I
Are you confused about nutrition? If so, I’m not surprised considering the plethora of marketing, advertising, and hype driving our food choices, especially on the internet. To make it even more confusing, you can find snippets of nutrition news, sometimes contradictory across media, even among the most credible sources.
Think about all the conflicting articles on coffee and wine for example. A study in the Journal of Health Communication found this makes people trust recommendations less, even nutrition recommendations that are less controversial.
Confusing information existed long before the internet—back in the old days of print, television, and radio. It’s one of the reasons I returned to school in the early 1990s—to study nutrition and learn. On top of the messages from media, messages compete with the latest and never-ending celebrity diet or trend/workout/detox/cleanse/supplement. It’s no wonder people don’t know what to believe.
Plus, forum threads, Facebook groups, and every food/nutrition product review online add to our confusion. There are many points of view to pour through to make informed decisions. Those decisions should be based on science and medicine, not word of mouth.
The Science Behind Nutrition News
Let’s look back to the beginnings of the science of nutrition. The first mention of nutrition experiments date back to 1747 when sailors with scurvy were divided and treated with either lemons and oranges or diluted sulfuric acid or vinegar. After six days, the sailors consuming citrus were near recovered, while the sailors in the other treatment groups showed no improvement.
A little over a century ago, in the early 1900s substances in foods were identified as being vital to life and named vitamins. It was when the disease beriberi led to the discovery of vitamin B1 (thiamin). And although the British surgeon James Lind identified how to treat sailors, it took almost 200 years before ascorbic (anti-scurvy) acid—better known as vitamin C—was identified.
The Scientific Method
With little over a hundred years of medical literature on nutrition, our knowledge evolves with each new piece of information adding to the existing data. It’s confusing, I know. Is butter back? Is it better? Well, define better. Better than trans fat? In comparison to what?
Thousands of health and nutrition studies are published weekly and thousands more in every stage of research. Evidence-based medicine is the standard to understand the truth. That’s why it is important to understand that research builds upon previous research.
No study stands alone.
A review of the scientific method starts with asking a question…defining a problem.
Ask a question, create a hypothesis, collect data, analyze results, make conclusions—only to pose further questions. And the cycle repeats itself again and again.
Science is imperfect yet that doesn’t mean it should be disregarded. Far from it.
Becoming a Nutrition Sleuth
Nutrition in the news is often based on scientific studies. But, how do you know which news articles are based on the most credible studies? How do you know the reporter is checking the facts of his/her assertions? It may take some detective work, but it’s possible to get a better idea of what’s credible and what’s not by looking at the who, what, when, where, and how of each article.
- Who owns, runs, pays for the site? The best place to look is the About section.
- Who wrote the information? What are his/her credentials?
- Who does the site link to and who are affiliated sites? Are they trustworthy?
- What’s the purpose and goal of the site?
- What are the credentials of the study author, for which the news piece is based?
- What is presented and can the nutrition claim be verified with other credible sources?
- Where is the information coming from? Check the URL.
- When was the information published or updated?
- If the article reports on a study, when was the study published?
- Why does the site exist? Is it offering a public service, providing information and education?
- Can you verify information on the site with other credible sites?
- Is the information presented related to products that the site happens to be selling?
- How is the research reported? Is it derived from a press release or from an interview with a journal study author? Is an opposing view offered?
- How is evidence provided? As testimonials or personal anecdotes, or sound science?
To get behind the science, there is an excellent post at the International Food Information Council Foundation’s website, Evaluating Scientific Evidence, which helps you understand and assess scientific literature. Check out the Study Evaluation Checklist.
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Image credits: pixabay.com and neilyonnutrition.com
Jennifer Neily, MS, RDN, LD, FAND
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist | Wellcoach® Certified Health Coach