Have you heard the latest controversial headlines about nutrition research…coconut oil, caffeine, or alcohol ring any bells?
Have you ever looked at a scientific study and thought…well this is science; everything they say must be true?
While it’s a good bet that a research study has credibility, it’s important to critically evaluate what a study can actually tell you. When it comes to nutrition research, there are many factors that can influence results and the power of the conclusion. Knowing how to interpret the latest research can be very empowering, especially when dealing with an autoimmune disease.
What Stands in the Way of Our Access
Research in general isn’t easy for the public to access. Universities are great at doing research, but not so great at sharing it with the public. Research studies are also written in a very technical way that is often difficult to understand if you’re not part of the specific research field. It’s also not likely that your specialist or primary care physician has the time to go over recent nutrition research and how it relates to autoimmunity. Knowing how to interpret the information yourself can have a powerful impact on your healing journey.
I’ve spent a good part of the last decade in academia and have gained an intimate perspective on the scientific process. I also teach a course all about nutrition research at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition in Vancouver, BC. In this blog post, I want to share with you some important tips to keep in mind when reading the latest studies on nutrition.
Finding Credible Studies
First things first, where can you actually find reputable scientific studies? You want to make sure that you’re accessing quality information. Scientific studies appear in journal articles, which have been reviewed by experts in the field to make sure the information is accurate and unbiased. This process is called peer-review.
The first place I usually start when looking for new research is Google Scholar. This online database will allow you to broaden and narrow your search as you like. You will also be able to figure out which studies are Open Access, which means the article is provided free to the public. Scientists don’t make money on their articles. When the public is given open access, the scientist, or university they are affiliated with, has to pay the journal company. If an article is not Open Access, the scientist does not have to pay for publication, but the journal company will charge the public. This means that you will probably only get a snippet of information (The Abstract), without being able to read the entire article. Universities and other post-secondary institutions pay for students to be able to access these. If there’s an article you really want to read, you can always try to email the authors for a copy, or find a friend with a university subscription.
Aside from Google Scholar, you can search nutrition and medical focused databases and journals, such as:
- New England Journal of Medicine
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
- The Journal of Nutrition
- Advances in Nutrition
- BMJ (British Medical Journal)
- Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine
- Cochrane Review
However, just because a study is published in a scientific journal, doesn’t always mean that we can take all of the information for granted.
How to Critically Evaluate the Study
When you’re reading through a study, keep the following criteria in mind:
- A study is only a small snapshot of a much larger topic. Researchers don’t always have decades or thousands of dollars to work with. Time and money are real limitations.
- Statistics are used to optimize time and money. Not all researchers are statisticians, so just because the numbers look fancy doesn’t mean they are 100% accurate or credible.
- Make sure the study was published in a scientific journal, not a popular magazine, newspaper, or other medium. This helps to identify if anonymous experts reviewed the study before publication.
- Identify the authors and their credentials. Ideally, the authors should hold PhDs or be in a graduate program.
- When was the study published? Medicine changes fast! Information older than 5 years may no longer be credible.
- How many people/animals were involved in the study, aka the sample size. This is important! If only 5 people were involved, the conclusions are not likely to be strong.
- How long did the study last? Nutrition takes a while to have an impact on the body. A study lasting a week, or even a few weeks, is not likely to identify a meaningful change.
- It’s not always ethical to provide a specific diet to research subjects. This is often coupled with the inability to conduct a randomized control trial (RCT), which is the standard of scientific research. In an RCT, there are two groups of people. One group gets an active substance being tested (ex. caffeine pill) and the other group gets a “false treatment” (ex. sugar pill). The two groups don’t know which substance they receive, a process called “blinding”, which helps to reduce bias in the study. This is difficult to do when testing food. People know what they are eating! To get around this, nutrition researchers often follow people who have chosen to incorporate a particular nutrition protocol for several years, which is called an observational study. An alternative is to test vitamins and minerals in supplement form instead of entire dietary patterns.
- What were the variables that were being studied? Science can really only study a few variables at a time. This ensures that bias is reduced and that the outcome is really due to the variables being tested. If caffeine and joint pain are studied, the study can only tell you about these two variables.
- There are a lot of outside factors that can impact a study. The authors should tell you if they controlled for these. In medical research diet is a huge factor that is often not controlled for! Watch out for any mention of nutrition, sleep, stress and other factors that could bias the outcome of a study.
When we hear the latest headlines about research in popular media we need to go back to the source and decide for ourselves whether the conclusions are valid. A case in point is the latest controversy over coconut oil. Reading the scientific evidence provides a much different picture than the headlines would have us believe. In the age of ‘fake news’, it’s now more important than ever to be able to find and critically analyze the credible information that does exist.
Scientific research can open up a world of information when living with an autoimmune disease. Conventional medical care doesn’t always provide us with the tools to search and analyze this information, but you can take an active role in your health journey by increasing your access. You can do this by searching the databases and journals above, or by visiting your local library. Librarians can demonstrate how to search for this information and free classes are often available.
If you’re looking for more easily accessible updates on the latest research on autoimmunity and nutrition, sign up for my mailing list where I provide overviews of the current information. Knowledge is power, and when dealing with an autoimmune disease, we can use all of the power we can get!