Understanding the Latest Nutritional Study
How to Read That Latest Nutritional Study
“Researchers Discover 20 Eggs a Day Prevent Hair Loss!”
One sure way to grab attention is to publish the results of the latest nutritional study. It doesn’t matter if it contradicts yesterday’s headline-in fact, it’s better if it does! So, how can we determine if what we’re about to read is actually meaningful?
When reading a study or an article about a study (which are two very different things, by the way!) consider these suggestions:
- Look up the terms and words that aren’t clear. It takes a bit of time, but you’ll have a deeper understanding of what you’re reading. If you can’t explain it to someone else, look it up.
- Keep in mind that when researchers conduct nutritional studies it is almost impossible to study one factor without the influence of other factors. For example, in the case of this fictitious study about eggs and hair loss, the number of eggs consumed can and should be measured and the amount of hair loss can and should be measured, but the lifestyle of the participants can’t be completely controlled, thus it is impossible to isolate the effect of eggs on hair loss.
- Examine what is being studied. Is it eggs or the nutrients in eggs? Are the participants already losing their hair or trying to prevent future hair loss? Are the eggs being eaten or used directly on their heads?
- Look for these things:
- Was there a control group? In other words, did one group have eggs while another group did not?
- How large was the sample size? Were there 6 participants or 6,000?
- Who were the participants? Results from women 16-24 years of age might have no bearing on the connection between eggs and hair loss for men in their 40’s.
- Who paid for the study? It sounds cynical, but it’s important to know if the ”Egg Farmer’s Council” paid for that study.
- How long did the study last?
- Understand that certain factors will always influence the outcome, such as:
- How healthy each participant was prior to and during the study.
- How the data is collected. For nutritional studies, data is often obtained from participants’ food journals or Food Frequency Questionnaires (FFQ) and they are notoriously unreliable. These instruments are questionnaires that ask participants to report what they ate over the previous time period in question; sometimes asking for information for months or years. I’m not sure what I ate yesterday, let alone last month or last year. How about you?
- How accurate and honest was each participant was about reporting their food?
- The bias of the scientist conducting the study.
Lastly, be aware that the results of nutritional studies are often reported as a statement of fact. The take-away from our fictitious egg study could easily be-Eat more eggs and you won’t lose your hair! But the headline is misleading. It doesn’t answer questions such as: is it egg yolk or egg white that makes the difference? Did replacing sweetened cereals or donuts with eggs cause the participants to consume less sugar which in turn led to reduced hair loss? Do eggs help keep your hair when you’re 60? Do you always have to eat eggs? Are eggs from pastured, organically raised hens better than conventional eggs? Will you keep your hair if you stop eating eggs?
This is not to suggest that you stop reading about current findings in nutritional epidemiology (do you have to look that word up? I did!), but that you read with a critical eye. Take opposing findings into consideration. Respect your own experience with your unique body. Most importantly, be open to changing your mind about what you thought was “true”. Cheers to continued reading and learning!
In the meantime, if you’d like to know more about living a healthier lifestyle, reach out to us for our professional guidance and support. Give us a call!
“Nutrition isn’t just about eating, it’s about learning to live” – Patricia Compiton
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