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Making Sense of Nutrition News, Part I

science, scientific methodAre 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 science, scientific methodthan 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Where is the information coming from? Check the URL.
    • .edu – education/universities—excellent resources
    • .gov – government sites—excellent resources
    • .org – mostly nonprofits—possibly reliable, but understand the site’s mission/agenda
    • .com – commercial, business—you need to dive deeper
When
  • When was the information published or updated?
  • If the article reports on a study, when was the study published?
Why
  • 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
  • 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.

Sign up for my blog updates so you don’t miss Making Sense of Nutrition News, Part II next week.

-Neily


Image credits: pixabay.com and neilyonnutrition.com

Jennifer Neily, MS, RDN, LD, FAND
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist | Wellcoach® Certified Health Coach
NeilyonNutrition.com
@JenniferNeily Twitter
@NeilyonNutrition Instagram

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23 Responses to Making Sense of Nutrition News, Part I

  • I really enjoyed learning about nutrition since I was confused and had so much questions about what nutrition is really about. My friend told me that it’s a difficult and confusing class. However, by taking this class, I learned about myself, how should watch carefully what you’re consuming, and your recommended daily intake

  • This information really enlightened me to the different aspects of nutrition that I should be attentive to.

  • I enjoyed reading about the different aspects of nutrition that we should pay attention to.

  • The 5 W’s: who, what, where, when, and why are great tools to use to unravel all the confusing information flying around the internet over what to eat and what to do to get healthy. Thanks for keeping us informed.

  • This made me think about what information is really reliable instead of assuming that all info given to me about food is objectively true.

    • Thanks Vinny – yes there is a lot to think about. Food/nutrition is not so cut and dry – it’s important to review the evidence. -Neily

  • I really enjoyed reading about the science behind nutrition, it really caught my eye. I will referring back to your posts whenever I have more questions about nutrition and what I need to fix about my diet.

  • This post is absolutely wonderful and hits all of the points. There are so many conflicting opinions and sources it leaves our brains scattered. I can relate to this all to well considering that over the years I have learned only through trial and error, I never got the answers I needed because I didn’t know who to trust in searching for them!

  • The main topic I absolutely enjoyed from this post was The Science Behind Nutrition News. What I loved most about it was that it was all about the history of the first vitamins ever discovered. I found it very interesting how for almost 200 years sailors all over had a well known remedy but did not have the full science behind it. It is also very cool to me knowing since the first vitamin identification scientist have discovered so much more about nutrition and dietary needs.

    -Emily Gonzales

  • Wow I never knew the history behind how Vitamin C was discovered until today. Also I am grateful that you clarified the different endings of URLs and what they mean; that is something that has always confused me about the internet regarding what websites to be trusted.

  • There is a lot of confusing and misleading information about diet and nutrition on the internet and we should be careful where we get our information from. This article really made me think to not believe everything I read on the internet about food until I make sure there is a research behind it

    • I’m glad it helped you Selahadin – that is my goal to help people by providing unbiased and relevant health and nutrition information…so people make educated decisions. Thanks for your comment! -Neily

  • Knowing that misinformation is running rampant not seen since the yellow journalism days, even worse in fact since the internet gives every moe a voice. It’s nice to differentiate reliable sources from active misinformation machines is important these days. Every news source has bias towards certain subjects, finding the centrist ones is great. I guess i also learnt the story of Vitamin C and how it came to be.

    • Thanks for your comment Nestor! Yes, the internet is giving many people a voice making the dispelling of misinformation much more problematic. -Neily

  • There are a lot of confusing and untrue information on the internet and including me almost most people think that all information are true which is not true I mean not always at least we are not sure because we don’t really look into any evidence or anything we just jump straight to conclusion so I really enjoy reading science behind nutrition because it opened my eyes that I should not jump right into conclusion I need to look for evidence If the giving source is reliable enough who is writing the articles and what purpose all that stuff.
    Thank you

    • I’m glad you found this post helpful! Yes, there is a LOT of misinformation on the internet…do your research before making conclusions. Thanks for your comment!
      -Neily

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