media

Deciphering Media Stories on Diet

The Bottom Line

Sensational headlines don’t always tell the whole story. Look at how nutrition news fits into the bigger scientific picture.

Science is a painstaking, deliberate process,which doesn’t fit very well into the simplistic, newer-is-always better world of the mass media. Recommendations are made based on the best science available at the time. With new research and new results, these recommendations may be revised. But contradictions in research results do occur. They are an inevitable and healthy part of the scientific process.

Yet when it comes to research on nutrition and health, media reports are often responsible for much of the frustration the public feels toward the public health community. With their emphasis on short, “newsworthy” pieces, the media often only report the results of single studies, and many stories are chosen simply because the results run contrary to current health recommendations. Because such reports provide little information about how the new results fit in with other evidence on the topic, the public is left to assume that, once again, the scientists are contradicting each other, leaving the public totally confused.

Don’t get discouraged! In many cases it only takes a few incisive questions to get at the heart of a research-related news story and see how important the results are for you personally. One of the most crucial things to keep in mind is, how does a given study fit into the entire body of evidence on a topic? What is the weight of the evidence?

5 QUICK TIPS: PUTTING HEALTH NEWS IN CONTEXT

Whenever reading or watching a news story on nutrition and health, keep these questions in mind:

1. Is the story simply reporting the results of a single study? Only very rarely would a single study be influential enough for people to change their behaviors based on the results. So it is important to see how that study fits in with other studies on the topic. Some articles provide this background; other times, you may need to do more digging on your own.

2. How large is the study? Large studies often provide more reliable results than small studies.

3. Was the study done in animals or humans? Mice, rats, and monkeys are not people. To best understand how food (or some other factor) affects human health, it must almost always be studied in humans.

4. Did the study look at real disease endpoints, like heart disease or osteoporosis? Chronic diseases, like heart disease and osteoporosis, often take many decades to develop. To get around waiting that long, researchers will sometimes look at markers for these diseases, like narrowing of the arteries or bone density. These markers, though, don’t always develop into the disease.

5. How was diet assessed? Some methods of dietary assessment are better than others. Good studies will have evidence that the methods have validity.

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The aim of the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Source is to provide timely information on diet and nutrition for clinicians, allied health professionals, and the public. The contents of this Web site are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Web site. The information does not mention brand names, nor does it endorse any particular products.