Read between the Headlines

Every day, nutrition and health news make headlines. In this age of instant communication, research often hits the media before nutrition experts can review and interpret the findings. Today's report may appear to contradict what you heard last week. Adding to the challenge, reporters assigned to medical stories usually need to report complex medical news quickly, in a short, simple way. The result? Confusion.

Legitimate scientists aren't out to mislead you. Responsible journalists aren't, either. Uncovering the mysteries of nutrition and the human body is a complex process. As new findings emerge, research may seem to contradict itself. But differences in two or more reports reflect how scientists continue to learn— sharing research results and questioning each step along the way. Scientific debate leads to more studies. Eventually—perhaps after years of study—recommendations based on sound science (repeated, conclusive evidence) can be shared with the public. In today's popular media, you can listen to the debate.

As science unravels more about the links among nutrition, health, and chronic disease, today's reports will eventually prove to be both true and false. You can't dissect every research report. But you can use caution and common sense before jumping to conclusions and changing your food and lifestyle choices:

  • Go beyond headlines. An attention-grabbing headline may leave a different impression than the full newspaper article or news brief itself. Read or listen to the whole story. Often response from other experts or "bottom line" advice appears at the story's end.
  • Remember—once isn't enough! The results of one study aren't enough to change your food choices. They're just one piece of a bigger scientific puzzle. True nutrition breakthroughs take years of study and the support of repeated findings from many scientific studies. That's why health organizations, government agencies, and health experts may appear conservative; their guidance reflects consistent, well-researched findings.
  • Check the report. Do other studies support the evidence? And does it build on what scientists know already? Responsible scientists and careful journalists report research within the context of other studies. And one study rarely changes their nutrition advice.
  • Recognize preliminary findings for what they are— preliminary! Read them with interest. But wait for more evidence before you make major changes.
  • Lookfor the human dimension. Animal studies may be among the first steps in researching a hypothesis. But the results don't always apply to humans.
  • Learn to be research savvy. Read more about the study itself before applying its conclusions to you. Ask yourself: Are the people studied like you—perhaps in age, gender, health, ethnicity, geographic location, and lifestyle? Did the study include a large group of people? Was the study long-range? Longer studies, with more people, more likely produce valid results. Even by asking these questions, it's hard for consumers to assess research methods. See "Scientific Studies: Coming to Terms " in this chapter.
  • Consider its context in the real world of healthful eating. Does the study tell how the findings relate to overall food choices, lifestyle, and other research? A responsible report tells how research fits within the broader context of what is already known.
  • Know what the words mean. Credible nutrition reports are careful with what they say so they won't mislead you. Research results may "suggest," but that isn't the same as "prove." And "linked to" doesn't mean "causes." Don't jump to conclusions—get to know "Words to the Wise" on page 622.
  • Check the source. Ask a qualified nutrition expert. Credible research comes from credible institutions and scientists, and it's reported in credible, peer-reviewed scientific and professional journals. Before nutrition research is published in reputable journals, it must meet well-established standards of nutrition research. If research is attributed simply to "they" or to some elusive source, be wary of its results.
  • Watch for follow-up reports. Breaking scientific news is often followed by review and advice from nutrition experts. For example, registered dietitians often appear in media, helping to interpret news reports on nutrition issues.

Even when research has been well conducted, scientists may view the results differently. It may take time for nutrition experts to study the research methods and findings. So don't always expect an immediate response. For the best health news, look for a full perspective, not reports of one study.

  • Keep a healthy skepticism. That's very true when evaluating news about nutrition "discoveries," "ground-breaking procedures," and "revolutionary therapy." See "Case against Health Fraud" in this chapter.
  • Watch out for absolutes! Responsible scientists don't claim "proof" or "cause" until repeated studies show that the findings are conclusive.
  • Seek a qualified opinion. Take the article with you! Before you change your eating style, consult a registered dietitian, other qualified nutrition expert, or doctor. Even promising research may not apply to you. For example, a report may suggest that red wine is heart healthy, but if you take an MAO inhibitor (an antidepressant), the combination may raise your blood pressure. Emerging science about wine may not benefit you—and drinking wine may be harmful in your case!
  • Put reports into your own reality. For any advice, weigh the benefits and risks, as they apply to you, as an individual. And recognize that there's no such thing as "zero risk" for practically anything!
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