Using (and evaluating) research to determine a healthy diet
“How do you reconcile all the conflicting info, “studies,” and media headlines that come out practically every day, with changing information about what actually is healthy?”
It can be overwhelming to keep up with the latest, often contradictory dietary advice coming from all these published studies, not to mention suss through the credibility of sensationalized media headlines.
First, if I am reading or hearing a headline in the media touting some sensational finding from a study that goes against what the current thinking is, I want to keep in mind that the media may not actually be reporting the study findings accurately. This happens all the time – like with coconut oil, saturated fat, eggs…actual data and study conclusions get twisted to be more exciting. Keeping this in mind, I go to the original study to compare what the authors concluded versus what the media took away from the paper.
In general, once I get my hands on the actual paper, I want to assess for bias. I want to ask a few basic questions first before even entertaining the outcome of the study and the impact that might have on the overall population. I want to know, first and foremost, who is funding and who is publishing the study to determine if the study is fueling an economic agenda! Is this a study that slams the health benefits of coconut oil, funded by the soybean oil industry (as happened last year)? Then I want to know if this was a human or animal study, since we are physiologically different from many other mammals, and how long the study was run for. Is this a study saying that supplementation of vitamin D is useless in preventing cancer, but only looked at supplementation over 6 months versus 20 years? And so on. I want to understand who initiated the study, why, and how the study was carried out. I want to see if the authors’ conclusion actually matches the data (there are times when data does not support the hypothesis, but the authors try to explain this away rather than understand why their hypothesis was not supported!). Then I want to understand why the results of the study were different from prior literature and how the author explains this. Perhaps a longer study period was run. Perhaps more confounding variables were accounted for. Perhaps there was a control group in this study. Or perhaps an industry wants to sell their product. Nutrition research is especially tricky because it is incredibly difficult to maintain a large group of people on a very specific diet for a long enough period of time to observe outcomes.
What I will say, also, is that American dietary changes that have been implemented over the past 100-150 years (advocated by the USDA, American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, etc.) have not been health supportive, as evidenced by the massive decline in the health of our overall population. Despite what the latest “study” is putting out, I think we rarely go wrong when we look at what types of foods people in our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations were eating and make choices in line with these types of foods. While they may not have had the most diverse or nutrient dense of diets, they also weren’t eating processed foods out of packages, or hundreds of pounds of sugar and high fructose corn syrup every year, or highly refined oils and fats (corn, soybean, “vegetable,” canola, shortening, etc.), or energy drinks and slushies…
I think in the end it all comes down to, research aside, is how well is the diet serving the person? Take the never-ending egg controversy. Say a study comes out next week suggesting that we should only be eating 5 eggs a week for optimal health. If the person in front of me is eating 14 eggs a week but has great energy and hormone balance, their cholesterol numbers are in a protective range (and the functional/optimal range is NOT what your conventional medical practitioner will suggest), their blood sugar is stable, their inflammation is low and appropriate, their immune system function is good, etc., this person is clearly thriving with their current dietary choice and the results of that study aren’t going to help them. Now, if a study came out showing that consuming a high sugar diet for 20 years is connected to cognitive impairment, and the person in front of me consumes the equivalent of 1.5 C sugar per day and is having cognitive issues, then we need to take a look at modifying the diet based on sugar intake to see if that will decrease cognitive issues. This is grossly oversimplified, but the general gist.