What Does That Study Mean?


One of the most challenging things these days is keeping up with the ever changing data that comes through our conscious. Particularly in the health and nutrition realm, every week something new pops up that’s claiming to be the next great discovery, nail in the coffin or reversal of a long held truth. It can even be on a week to week basis that we get polar opposite research battling back and forth for nutritional supremacy. Now with the prevalence of social media, news of the latest research can quickly become viral and reach everyone within arms reach of a smartphone or laptop within minutes.This being the case, I think it is of vital importance that people have a nice framework to look at research studies when the local news reports it or when noticing their friends’ linking to a website on Facebook or email.

In essence, how can we filter the health “research” we come across?

Option 1
Believe it all- it wouldn’t be news if it wasn’t true.

Option 2
Ignore it- it’s all crap.

Option 3
What til Bare 5 runs down the Bottom Line on it.

Option 4
Watch Dr. Oz- he’ll break it down for you.

Option 5
Use some common sense and few simple questions to analyze it.

Shocker here- go with number 5. Even though number 3 sounds good (wink wink), I say you empower yourself to filter your own health news.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself whenever you see a “study” making a health, nutrition or fitness claim…

Where did you see it?
Yahoo? The local news? Dr. Oz? JAMA (Journal of American Medical Association) while perusing PubMed online?

If you’re seeing it online or in the media, particularly popular media, be very skeptical of the headline claim. Note what the title is but then literally dismiss it, particularly if you see something like this on the news, “Red Meat Kills You in Your Sleep and Takes Your TV and iPad and Doesn’t Close The Door on the Way Out.”

The title means nothing other than giving you a broad idea of what MAY have actually been studied. Claims you hear in media very rarely reflect research conclusions and are usually sensationalized for impact or shock value. Shock value is important in media and even researcher’s conclusions become more popular if they make a bold conclusion.

What kind of study is it? Observational/Prospective/Clinical?
This is an important question. The type of study will largely determine the impact of the results. Most of the research you come across is observational. This means the study is looking at correlation only and simply a relationship was established. These are great in that they allow us to make hypotheses to study but they do not “prove” anything. It is very hard to narrow down and exclude confounding variables to get an accurate idea of the real nature of the relationship.

Clinical research can establish more in the way of causation but keep in mind it is very hard to eliminate confounding variables.

A couple other questions you can ask…

Where did this come from?
Who are the researchers? Who actually did the research? What country? Not always a big deal but nice to be aware of who conducted the study and where it took place.

Who funded it?
If you see a business financed the study, be wary of what may have gone on behind the scenes in term of set up, data, results and reporting.

Who did they study?
Who were the subjects? Pretty simple question but always nice to know who and what is being studied. If you’re an average Joe or Jane and the study was performed using athletes it may not be anything applicable to you.

If you can look a little deeper…

What were the data collection methods?
Food frequency questionnaires are not reliable. Unfortunately most health related research, particularly “red meat kills you” type studies, use things like this. Unless you study people with memories as accurate as a computer you’re asking for some pretty skewed data.

Are there confounding variables?
There are always confounding variables. Do the researchers acknowledge them? Often confounding variables completely negate the findings if you look at them closely.

Does data actually lead to the stated conclusion?
If you have access to read the study in full, this will be easy to determine. Check out PubMed online for access to many of the studies you come across.

What limitations are mentioned?
This is where you see how honest the researchers are. Nearly every study has dozens, look for plenty of limitations in the discussion. If a study doesn’t mention limitations, it is likely compromised by bias, be very skeptical of the results.

The Bare 5 Bottom Line on Filtering Research:
1. Don’t take any research on face value.
2. Know what type of research was done (i.e. observational).
3. Find out who was behind the scenes.
4. If interested, see what the actual data says.
5. Use research as a guide to explore more on a topic.

Thanks for reading, have a great research filtering week!

P.S. Check out Dr. Richard Feinman’s Reading The Scientific Literature. A Guide To Flawed Research



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