Research: Fact or fiction
There seems to be so much information “out there” on just about every topic imaginable. Being a dietitian, I get asked about the newest nutrition item on the internet or on the TV news. Depending on the claim being made, I do what I advise everyone to do: look up the research behind the claim.
I know what to look for. Do you?
First, look at the source of the information presented: CBS news or Alien Abduction Weekly. Many online sources will cite the original study or at least the name of the researcher or the journal in which the study was printed. WebMD.com has “Article Sources” at the very end of their entries. Do you really want to read the original study? Well, do you REALLY want accurate information or will anything do? If the original study, research or journals are mentioned, try Medscape.com. It is a free site that will provide at least the abstract or summary of many medically related studies. If the origin of the information is not present, keep looking by typing the topic into your search engine.
Once you’ve found the study, there are still some questions to ask yourself. First, when was the study done: is it a new study or an old one being recycled? Older studies might still give good information, but times, and life, might have changed. Usually the newer the study, the better. Many older studies have been contradicted by newer, better research.
Who was studied? Animals aren’t humans. What might happen to a rat, mouse or monkey might not be the same for ourselves. Were the study subjects male, female or both? Until the 1980s and 1990s, many medical studies were conducted on primarily white male subjects with few female or other nationalities considered. In the last few decades, there have been multiple studies that have shown that men and women experience medical problems differently.
How old were the subjects? A study focusing on the elderly might be as accurate for a teenager and vice versa. Was the study small or large? I read one promising study that only had 84 participants. Even its authors wrote that it was a good beginning, but more research was needed. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) study has been conducted by the federal government for the past forty years examining the responses of thousands of people from all races and genders. The Nurses’ Health Study has been following over one hundred thousand female nurses from 1972 and1986. These long term studies are called “longitudinal studies” and provide the most accurate information because they follow the subjects while they age and change.
Another element is the source of funding for the study. One artificial sweetener producer claimed that the studies done in the past 20 years showed no side effects. The problem: those studies were sponsored by that same producer. Bias?
Don’t forget to discuss any diet changes with your doctor. They need to know, too.