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Making Sense of Nutrition News, Part II

confused, question, nutrition news

I’ve been adjunct (part-time) faculty over 20 years and have the unique perspective of hearing what my students know and understand about nutrition as they learn key concepts. Early on in my teaching career (pre-internet), I assigned students a project requiring them to summarize a nutrition-related current event from a newspaper or magazine. They presented their summary in class and we deciphered reliability, learning what’s credible and what’s questionable.

As the internet evolved and became the go-to place for information, our learning advanced to a virtual platform including discussion boards. A favorite discussion board topic was (and is) answering this question: Why is nutrition so confusing?

My Nutrition Students’ Confusion over Nutrition Claims in Media

Over the years, my students’ responses include comments like this:

  • “Nutrition is confusing because it’s applicable to everyone. Everyone has their own experience and opinion and can say anything on the internet. People try to educate themselves but it’s an endless cycle of misinformation and opinion pieces.”
  • “My sister won’t eat some vegetables anymore. She read somewhere they cause cancer. I’m not sure what she’s reading. I know that’s not true and told her it’s the opposite—how veggies may prevent cancer.”
  • “News articles or reports get out there and maybe facts aren’t verified. The reports turn out to be untrue, yet the information is already out there. People don’t find out the truth and stick with the first info they learned.”
  • “Articles written are exaggerated to get our attention. Some of the headlines are true, but researchers are testing on rats, not humans.”
  • “Many studies make a bold claim and then make note about needing further research to substantiate it. One must always notice these disclaimers.”
  • “One thing surprising me is that too many studies try to account for many things. From the day I started taking science classes and learning about the scientific method, my teachers made it clear that variables need to be controlled during experiments. So, why do many scientists, etc., forget the basics when performing their own experiments?”
  • “One question I ask myself is why do people continue to believe these claims even after people claim they are not real?”

Good insight—score one for my students!

A Closer Look at Nutrition News

As discussed in Making Sense of Nutrition News, Part I, nutrition research and knowledge over the past few decades grew at a staggering rate. But the abundance of information online makes it hard to sort through all the articles on any given nutrition topic and find the truth.

When looking at nutrition news, I don’t take the words in the article for face value. I take a closer look. For instance, when I reviewed references from a website touting coconut oil, many studies were either completed on rats or used an oil that is not coconut oil.

It’s important to look at exactly what is being studied and who the results apply to. While animal models are important in research, and studies might yield promising results, the research is preliminary and not definitive without human clinical trials.

In human trials, I also look at how many people were involved in the study. Studies performed on small sample sizes may hold less weight than studies involving hundreds, if not thousands, of people. To rule out a finding being “chance,” sample size ought to be large enough. If you’re averaging out the odds of something, 1 in 10 would be very different than 1 in 10,000.

Correlation is not causation

Although large sample-size studies called observational studies, like the Nurses’ Health Study, are important and add to our body of knowledge, they may provide weaker associations as opposed to the validity of a clinical study involving treatments and control groups. Correlating evidence does not prove a cause and effect. (Many things correlate as highlighted on this website. For example, as consumption of cheese rises so do the number who die getting tangled in bedsheets…hmmm.) 

You might be surprised to know some headlines in the news come from information compiled in a press release. It’s important to look at news stories and find the source(s) for the nutrition news article. For example, various food associations send press releases to editors and reporters; while their press releases may cite studies, it’s not going to provide a comprehensive review of the food or product—only supporting studies.

Many study results are preliminary, like those of a phase I clinical trial, which involve under 100 people and is highly experimental. In contrast, the results of a study involving a phase IV clinical trial is not preliminary and the treatment is already being used by the public.

Other studies have yet to be peer-reviewed. The study may be online, and written by an established researcher or doctor, and posted with other research articles, but it may not have the vetting of other medical peers, as it would, say, if published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

So, as I tell my nutrition students each semester, take a closer look. With a little research, you’ll be able to decipher what is reliable, or not. With some effort, you’ll understand what is nutrition noise and what is factual nutrition news.

Let’s chat. What confuses you?

-Neily

nutrition news, correlation is not causation, science of nutrition, great dane rescue, adopt don't shop

My boy Lex is so smart.


Image credits: pixabay.com and neilyonnutrition.com

Jennifer Neily, MS, RDN, LD, FAND
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist | Wellcoach® Certified Health Coach
NeilyonNutrition.com
@JenniferNeily Twitter
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8 Responses to Making Sense of Nutrition News, Part II

  • Yes, I agree that nutrition is a very confusing subject. It is confusing because so much information about nutrition keeps changing, but the foods themselves do not change. For example coffee has been ground and mostly brewed the say way for hundreds of years. It is also confusing how some foods which are common and have been around for a long time, suddenly become nutritious super foods. Is it that people are consuming these foods such as wine and coffee in different ways or in larger amounts?

    • Thanks for your question Mweru! And you are correct, coffee HAS been consumed the same for centuries BUT it’s the research on it that is new. There has been a lot of research on coffee and also the phytochemicals in wine. Sometimes too it is marketing! -Neily

  • Hi Neily! Great post! I particularly enjoyed the discussion about correlation not equaling causation. Its so natural to assume the opposite, the amusing examples of correlations that can’t possibly indicate causation are a good reality check. (And Lex is real cute!)

  • I also learned a little about correlation is not causation in my psychology and stats class. With an observational study, the results/data are just observations. I believe observational studies can lead to experimental studies. After the experiment and all data is recorded, a conclusion is made and evidence is shown through a graph or diagram. I wonder if companies expand or decrease the values on the X and Y axises to manipulate the shape/direction of the line. The data would be correct but the ranges on the axes may throw the data off. My question is can companies change the way their data statics are perceived without technically falsifying data?
    I hope that question makes sense,
    Colleen 🙂

    • Thanks Colleen – I’m pleased you found the information interesting and have started learning about it in other classes.

      Re: “My question is can companies change the way their data statics are perceived without technically falsifying data?” Although I am not a statistics expert it is my understanding data can be manipulated in many ways by how the data is statistically analyzed. The data itself does not change but how stats testing is completed. -Neily

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