Saturday, September 22, 2007

Reading Nutrition Research

A quick post today on some of the "tools of the trade" you need to properly read research.

It seems every time I visit an Internet message board someone is quoting research papers to help support their argument about why supplement X builds muscle, or how food Y can cut fat.

As a reader, you should be very, very skeptical when you see this sort of thing, because as many academics are fond of saying, "there are studies, and then there are studies".

Confused? I'll try to help with a quick example.

Every now and then major research journals put out special "supplementary" issues that contain a bunch of research studies that are all on a similar topic. The entire supplement may contain research on soy, or growth hormone, or may be entirely on the topic of fat loss.

While this makes for easy reading (all your research is in one place), it introduces a heightened level of potential bias (a better chance that the outcome of the research was skewed towards a beneficial finding).

You see, According to Dr. Marion Nestle (author of Food Politics) these supplementary issues (or supplements) are expensive to produce and are often paid for in part by corporate sponsors with interest in that particular area of research.

For example, if I had millions of dollars to spare, I might sponsor a supplement on the topic of fasting for weight loss, in the hopes that the research within this supplement might increase the sales of my book Eat Stop Eat.

To make matters even more confusing, if I had millions, I might have also paid for the actual research that was conducted, thus paying for the research and the journal it is published in!

Marion Nestle points out that when this occurs "nutrition journal supplements also tend to highlight the benefits of particular foods or diets in which the sponsors have some interest."

In other words, if I sponsored a supplement on fasting, I increase the chances that the research in that journal would find a positive, beneficial result.

Because research journals are expensive to produce, they can take as much as tens of millions of dollars in the form of drug and food company advertising and sponsorship to help subsidize their cost for publication.

Unfortunately this can add a certain level of conflict of interest to the research in question.

Here's a tip- when research comes from a supplement it has the letter "s" next to its page numbers. This can be considered a signal to readers that the articles may not have undergone the same type of rigorous peer review as is customary in regular journal issues.

When reviewing research on a particular topic, it is important to make sure that you review the research from a number of different journals and different authors. This will help reduce the chance that their was any conflict of interest biasing the results of the research.

And never, ever take the conclusions of 1 paper as fact.


Stumble Upon Toolbar

No comments: