How to read….nutritional research edition

About twice a week my news-feed has some story about a new research study that completely invalidates the old line. “Saturated fat isn’t so bad…go ahead and have that bacon”, “Sunscreen the cause of cancer?”….etc. The seeming variation in what is touted as ‘scientific research’ is enough to make anyone question whether science is all it is cracked up to be. Don’t worry – science isn’t the problem – 75-90% of the time it is the way the study is being represented…I’ll explain

Tim’s super handy guide to Nutritional science readinG

Step 1: Take a deep breath

There is about a million different people all writing about nutritional science, and all of them are going to see it a tad differently. So take a deep breath and remember you are looking at the research in order to inform your decisions. You aren’t looking to science to validate yourself

Step 2: Steel yourself for sensational headlines

Those million people are going to need something to set themselves apart from their peers, and there are two ways to do that. The first is clickbait. I’m a straight white man, so if you hear anyone who fits that description tell you they don’t click links that have photos of women, then they are lying. I’m told women do similar things, but I can’t verify that.

Anyway the second way is a sensational headline. What better way to get people young and old to click your link than to say this is the ‘first’, ‘best’, ‘worst’, ‘most significant change’…etc? We are socially conditioned to respond to words like that, so no shame in clicking on the link to find out more, but just remember….the only reason the headline is there is to get your attention.

Step 3: Remember how nutritional research is conducted (The Cool Version)

The bottom line is that nutritional research is extremely poorly funded. This means researchers have to make the hard decision of compromising on the length or the size of the study. Compromising on length is almost always significantly harder to correct later, because you want your test subjects in a controlled setting the whole time you are studying them. So coming back later and trying to restart the study doesn’t work.

Compromising on the size of the study is much easier to correct through future studies. The hallmark of any study involving humans is a selection of a representative sample of the population. This is done through random sampling. If you are a researcher who has the money to do a study of 15 people, but need at least 120 to be a true representative sample, then you just find your 120 random test subjects, and just study them 15 at a time.

This creates a situation where one of the eight notional studies would contradict the results of one or two of the others. But once the full analysis, also called ‘meta-analysis’, is done of all the studies grouped together, the researchers (and you) are able to see the full conclusions.

Step 3a: How Nutritional Research Is Conducted (The more technical Version)

The gold standard for evaluating cause and effect (for example, if saturated fat causes heart disease) is the randomized control trial (RCT), where participants are divided by chance into separate groups that undergo different regimens. But it’s not always possible to do RCTs because they’re expensive and it’s hard for people to follow strict diet regimes long-term.

Instead, researchers often rely on correlational studies, which don’t show cause and effect, but tell us if two things are related in some way. One big problem in this research is controlling for variables outside of what’s being studied. With saturated fat for example, researchers try to control for other factors like income or exercise, but can never account for all variables.

Correlational studies leave more room for interpretation than RCTs — and when human nature comes into play, it can seem like advice is flip-flopping. Personal bias, funding sources or the pressure to succeed can unintentionally creep into a researcher’s work and influence the results.

Step 4: Apply what you read

The next time you see a headline about a new study that seems to contradict nutritional norms, remember that these are the studies that grab media attention. The vast majority of nutritional research never makes it beyond medical journals. Scrutinize the story carefully. Consider whether it’s an RCT or a correlation study, and whether it’s a single trial or a meta-analysis.

Finally, disregard “experts” who claim they are 100 percent certain of the science on an issue. You shouldn’t mind if an expert is uncertain. As long as they can say, we don’t have the perfectly definitive study, but the available evidence points towards… We all need to remember, science is a process, not an outcome.

Next time

My next post will get back to talking about anti-inflammation supplements (some old posts are here). In the meantime, if you are looking for a supplement whose ingredients are all backed by RCTs, check out my Indiegogo page. Or if you are looking for what you or your kids’ lives will be like when humanity makes its jump into space check out my other blog.

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