Healthy Eating: Interpreting Food & Health-Related Scientific Studies

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ConfusionAll of us can probably relate to this often-repeated statement:  I don’t know what to eat anymore! 

One day such and such is bad for me and something else is good for me.  The next day, it’s totally different! 

Of course, that’s a bit of exaggeration, but anyone who closely follows media reports about healthy eating and health studies is sure to be confused at times.

The International Food Information Council provides an extensive discussion of how to accurately interpret food and health-related studies.  It’s a bit lengthy, but well worth the read for anyone who pays regular attention to such studies, and feels somewhat lost as a result.  If you don’t want to take the time to read the whole article, consider this overview next time you wonder about whether you should take the results of a study to heart.

The scientific process—how studies are designed, conducted, and reported—frequently generates a great deal of debate. Tracking the debate is often key to putting new research into context. With that in mind, new research studies published in scientific journals should be viewed as discussions among scientists. In these discussions, almost no one gets to have the final word, as it is rare that a study provides a final, complete answer. In fact, occasionally even old, accepted research results are revisited and discussed again. With the benefit of new information or technology, scientists sometimes see old results in a new light. The publication of research findings allows researchers to obtain input on their work, which not only confirms or contradicts their results but also adds to the body of literature on a subject and helps shape future research.

The bottom line is that dialogues characterized by cycles of revisions, conjectures, assertions, and contradictions are frequently key to investigating a subject. In addition, although such cycles often frustrate non-scientists and can contribute to increasing public skepticism about advice on food and health, it is important to understand that science is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Because scientific research explores the unknown, uncertainty is an unavoidable part of current investigations. Only through repeated research and analyses do certainties emerge.

The bottom line for a consumer, I think, is that we don’t want to make decisions about what to do based on a single study.  We want to look for those ‘certainties’ (if we can call it that — as the above summary states, even old certainties sometimes prove uncertain) that come from repeated research and analyses. 

This is frustrating for someone who needs answers now, and it’s understandable that we might choose to take steps that seem relatively harmless if there is some promise that they might help a certain condition.  For example, someone mentioned using cinnamon to help with insulin resistance in a recent comment on this blog.  Cinnamon seems on the face of it a relatively harmless substance that, who knows, might have some effect.  But I always recommend a thorough review of the potential benefits and risks before taking the plunge.

The old adage ‘better safe than sorry’ really does hold true when it comes to supplements and the like. That’s one thing that science has proved with certainty.

3 Responses (Add Yours)

  • When I was young, I took studies very seriously. Over time, seeing the contradiction in studies, I began to all back upon the reliance on healthy, natural foods in simple states. Eat the miracle food of the moment, like all things, in moderation.

  • Marsha says:

    Wise words, S. William. Thanks!

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