How to Read Nutrition Research Like a Pro

sitting on couch with cat and laptop

Have you ever felt confused by nutrition research? You’re not alone. Nutrition is notoriously tough to study. Trust me, even researchers and nutrition professionals are left scratching their heads sometimes. It certainly doesn’t help that the local news and the people of the internet, in general, tend to blow nutrition studies out of proportion. So, what do we do? With a few tips and tricks, you can sift through nutrition claims and understand them with ease.

My client’s question was simple enough – “If you had to choose one type of protein to have for dinner tonight, what would you choose?” My answer wasn’t that simple – “Well, it depends…”

I proceeded to tell her how there is no “best protein” (in my opinion) but that variety is key. We want to avoid eating the same protein types over and over again (looking at you, chicken) that we can avoid getting bored and get the full spectrum of benefits that proteins have to offer. For example, if you’ve been eating beef for the last couple of days, your best choice for dinner tonight might be something leaner like turkey, fish, or legumes. I spared fron her a discussion of protein quality and digestibility, environmental impact, etc. because – 1) I didn’t want to bore her to death, and 2) there is only so much time in the world.

What’s wrong with simple answers?

I’m sure that wasn’t the most satisfying response. It would have been a lot cooler if I could say, “Salmon is the world’s most complete and healthy protein and it’s been proven to have more benefits than any other food!” but that wouldn’t have been true or helpful.

Nutrition is complex and confusing, but we crave definitive, simple answers. This is one of the reasons that fad diets, documentaries, and flashy news headlines catch our attention. We want to be confident that we’re doing the right thing.

Unfortunately, black-and-white answers are rarely accurate. When a concept is oversimplified, we miss out on the nuance that is needed to completely understand it. The caveats, considerations, and “what ifs?” aren’t easy to explain, but they’re still important.

Nutrition science makes me want to rip my hair out sometimes. Research isn’t static – it’s a living, breathing organism. The best available evidence changes often, so it can be hard to stay up-to-date, especially if you’re not a nutrition professional. To complicate matters further, one misinterpreted study can spread like wildfire.

Why does nutriton advice change so often?

First, we’re told to avoid whole eggs abd opt for egg white, then we’re told that doesn’t matter anymore. The message from the media turns into, “Go nuts! Eat as many eggs as possible! Scientists have been lying to us all along!”

I hate to break it to you, but most scientists aren’t gathered in a room somewhere, twirling their mustaches and plotting our demise. I’ve met them. I’ve been one of them, They’re all just trying to write research grants, pore over boring stats, and write their next manuscript.

Scientists are well-meaning people. They seek answers. They want to form a consensus on their topic of interest, based on the best available evidence. As research is conducted, the evidence is updated. At one point, the best available evidence told us that the world was flat. (Although I’m told some people still beleive that’s true.) Thankfully, technology was developed and knowledge grew, so people were able to see a more accurate picture of our world. The same applies to other areas of study.

Why is nutrition research so hard to do? It’s not rocket science, is it?

I’ve had clients tell me, “it’s not rocket science,” when discussing nutrition recommendations. First of all, ouch…. Secondly, the basic parts of nutrition are simple – eat a variety of foods and nutrients, we all need more fruits and veggies – but the rest of it can be pretty complicated. (Remember back to those “what-if’s”?) Nutrition research has its own unique challenges:

  1. People eat foods, not just nutrients. Isolating a nutrient of concern in the lab does not mean that it works the same way in the real world. An example – the glycemic index. Sure, under controlled conditions we can show that a certain amount of white bread elevates blood sugar to a certain degree, but how many people are eating plain, dry, white bread on a regular basis? (Ew.) In the real world, they’re probably eating bread as part of a meal with other nutrients like protein and fats, or at least with some butter on it. (Come on now.)
  2. People live in the world, not in a vacuum. Living in the world means that we are interacting with many variables that can’t always be controlled for like they can in research. It’s extremely hard to study the diets of free-living individuals. Let’s say you’re a researcher and you want to do a year-long study of people following a low-carb diet for weight loss. How would you make sure they’re sticking to the diet?
  3. Evidence from animal studies can not always be applied to humans. You might be surprised how many well-known studies were done on rats.
  4. Correlation does NOT equal causation. Just because one habit or nutrient is associated with a certain outcome, doesn’t mean it is directly responsible for that outcome. My favorite example – shark attacks and ice cream. Yep. Stick with me here. When we look at historical data, shark attacks seem to increase during peak ice cream season. Does that mean that eating ice cream makes sharks attack?! No. Warmer waters in the summers drive sharks inland, and warmer weather in the summer draws humans to their local ice cream parlor. When you hear, “Eating XYZ has been associated with an increased risk of cancer,” it doesn’t mean that eating that food caused cancer, or any other disease – just that they’re linked. There could be other factors at play.

Infographic on how to read Nutrition Research

So, what do we do?

  1. Learn how to spot sensationalized, oversimplified headlines and BS advice. If diet advice includes the words, “always,” “never,” “everyone should,” or “cure,” RUN. Black-and-white answers aren’t telling you the whole truth.
  2. Accept that accurate answers aren’t always simple. Be patient and curious. Realize that nutrition research is hard to conduct, so it might change over time.
  3. Get comfy in the grey area. Think of scientific consensus like a pendulum – public opinion tends to swing from one extreme to another, but the truth usually settles somewhere in the middle. (Example: Fat doesn’t make you fat, but it doesn’t mean you have to eat lard by the spoonful now. People do it. I wish I were kidding.)
  4. Remember the research hierarchy. Not all research is created equally.
  5. Know when to ask for help. Seek a personalized approach. You deserve better than a cookie-cutter nutrition plan or incomplete answers to your questions. A registered dietitian nutritionist can take your “what-if’s” into account to help you find the best solution for you.

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