Four Tips to Become a Savvy Nutrition Sleuth

May 15, 2013

Become a savvy nutrition study sleuth!

Nutrition is a relatively new science, but boy, do the research studies abound! Have you ever been so confused by the “latest study”, which completely contradicts the “latest study” that was just published the week before? I’m a registered dietitian, with a BS in Nutrition and Food Science, a graduate internship year at University of Alabama in Birmingham, and 28 years of “field” experience, and I find myself confused, too!

Case in point: This morning, I read this nutrition headline, “Eating less at breakfast will not make you gorge at lunchtime, study shows.”   My first thought? Wow, that is the opposite of what I teach in RevItUP! Second, more important, thought? That is the opposite of what many studies over the last decade have shown about the importance of a healthy, balanced breakfast in not only maintaining an active metabolic rate but also preventing cravings and over-indulgence later in the day.  My next thought? Time to decipher what’s happening in this study report!

Facts that I noticed upon closer look: 1) Only 33 “overweight people” were used in this study, 2) All subjects were served a full breakfast that included cereal, milk, scrambled egg, ham, brown toast with butter and orange juice (check out the picture with the study – if that is indeed a photo of the study breakfast, it seems to be bigger than your average weekday meal for sure!), 3) the researchers “covertly reduced the portion size for some of the participants”, up to 40%,  which resulted in up to 269 fewer calories consumed (again, look at the picture – giving up 269 calories still leaves a good sized meal, don’t you think?), and (here’s the kicker!), 4) the supervisor of the study said “that results may not be borne out in everyday life”.  What does that mean, you may ask? He answers this in the next sentence, “This research was done with people in a controlled laboratory environment and more work is required to determine if the effect remains in real life where there are more opportunities to eat.”

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? A controlled laboratory environment, in which a small group of individuals who are struggling with their weight are eating every meal together, is NOT even close to a REAL world. I have worked with so many individuals with weight issues over decades, and most of them worry about what others think about them, and worry about being judged for what they do or don’t eat. These individuals often admit that what they eat on their own is usually different from what or how they eat in public. If I was one of the subjects, I would be very aware of other participants’ watching what I ate, and regardless of how hungry I might be, I would not want to eat when they were not, or eat a noticeably larger portion than they did.  Peer pressure, a sterile laboratory setting (not your local restaurant or pub!) and a controlled eating environment totally removes the ‘real life’ application.

Another thought I had: the breakfast they consumed contains grains, fruit (albeit juice) AND several sources of protein, in addition to some dabs of butter. The protein, and fat, consumed with the grain and fruit juice will help sustain the energy released from those carbohydrates, prevent cravings and stabilize hunger/fullness levels. Even if less total calories are consumed, but the breakfast still includes all the food groups in balance, the amount consumed or desired at lunch will be easier to control and much less of an issue. If you just glanced at the title and first sentence of this study about breakfast, you might walk away thinking that the breakfast meal doesn’t really matter and what I eat or don’t eat at breakfast won’t affect what and how much I choose the rest of the day. But after taking a closer look, you will find that your first conclusion is inaccurate.

Learn to be a savvy scientific study sleuth by following these four basic tips: 2) Is it a research study that follows the gold standard for credible research? Gold standard means it’s a double-blind, randomized, cross-over research study. Neither researcher or subject know who is in which group (study or control), the variables in the study are randomized, and the research can be replicated by a separate, non-affiliated group at another time and achieve the same results. 2) How many participants are involved? The smaller the study, the less accurate the results can be in terms of extrapolating the findings to a much larger population. 3) Can the results translate to the REAL world, and not just within a laboratory? And 4) Do the researchers or the organization behind the research have anything to gain from this study? Basically, are they biased towards the results in terms of making a financial profit from the sale of a product or program using the research? That’s a very important question to determine the credibility of the study results.

More strategies exist that can be used to decipher a nutrition research study, but these four tips will help you become a wiser consumer in terms of believing everything you hear. In other words, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Don’t be quickly persuaded by a study’s title or overview of results. Take a closer look, use these tips, throw in your common sense, and you will be ready to tackle next week’s “latest study” as a wiser, more savvy consumer!

4 thoughts on “Four Tips to Become a Savvy Nutrition Sleuth

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