The Good The Bad and The Ugly on Nutritional Studies

Many have heard or read reports about discoveries based on some kind of study conducted at some place, some where.  But what do these studies actually mean and furthermore how reliable are they? While this next topic may seem somewhat dry, it’s important  to have the tools to evaluate people’s recommendations upon a particular “study” and then make your choices. So let’s begin with the most common type of study, which are referred to as Case Studies.  Case studies are based upon observation.  They provide information about an individual in a particular setting.  They are considered the weakest of all scientific studies but it doesn’t mean there is no validity to the conclusions.  What they can do is prompt more research and help the researchers form a hypotheses for further analysis.

Epidemiological studies are observational in nature as well but are a bit more global in nature as they examine health – related events  in specific populations.  They often highlight nutrition and exercise patterns to show associations and correlations. They are  considered stronger than case studies as the studies focus on larger populations and the statistics are analyzed. They do lack control of all the variables so the researcher observes and collects information but does not try to change the participants being observed. Whereas  in an experiment, the researcher intervenes to change something (e.g. gives participant a drug) and then observes what happens.

Good scientific research involves several things but its goal is to reduce bias and help to ensure accurate results. The “best” research is a randomized double blind, placebo-controlled crossover study performed on humans. A sample of a populations is chosen to ensure that all people in the study population have the same chance of being selected for the sample.  These people are also randomly assigned to either the treatment or placebo group.

A double-blind study is one in which neither the researchers nor the study participants know which group they are in or what sort of treatment they are receiving.  A crossover study means the people involved will be in both the treatment and placebo groups.  For example if six trials were conducted, subjects would receive treatment in the three and then cross over and do three in the placebo group.  The strongest results do come from studies in which data are obtained from both a treatment and placebo group.

The strongest results do come from studies in which data are obtained from both a treatment and placebo group. But to put the “icing on top of the cake” so to speak, a study should be peer reviewed and scrutinized by a group of similarly trained professionals before the study is publicized. To eliminate bias, researchers names are removed and the manuscript is sent to two or more reviewers and if the study design and methodology is not sound, reviewers recommend that the study be not published.

Reproducible results are also an important part of the scientific process.  Cumulative data are the basis for sound recommendations.  It is important that any new study be reviewed within the context of the current body of research.  Finally, one should ask, “Who paid for the research?”. There are many ways that research is funded and many involve receiving grants from private companies and federal agencies.  It is important that the funding sources do not influence the outcome of the study.  While this is difficult to determine, it is something to keep in mind when evaluating a nutritional claim.

So make good judgments!

“Trust your instincts, and make judgments on what your heart tells you.  The heart will not betray you.” David Gemmell, Fall of Kings

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