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Nutrition Info: How to Tell What's True and What's Not

Jul 16, 2014
It's easy to feel overwhelmed and anxious at the sheer volume of health information out there. With seemingly conflicting reports and a study on every possible subject, one can wonder how to differentiate between fact and fiction. One recent and very controversial nutrition headline implied that it's better to eat a KFC Double Down than to consume an egg. Could that possibly be true? Well, here are a few tips to help you decide whether what you're reading is for real or better left to the magazines warning us of polka dotted aliens from Pluto and pregnant men.

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Watch Out for Hype

A health article in a typical consumer magazine is only as accurate and objective as its reporter and editor, so watch out for the headline.  Some media outlets really want to get your attention and may tweak the truth just a bit to grab it. Before believing the headline that announces acai berry pills as the only form of fruit you'll ever need, read the beginning and conclusion to see if they really meant what they said in the title and then read the whole article carefully.

Always Check the Source of the Source


Where does the evidence come from? The nutrition or health article's trustworthiness increases if it comes from a journal that top professionals in their fields read, such as the Journal of the American Medical Association and Journal of Clinical Nutrition. If the article was written by a doctor or registered dietitian, that is great  But it's not always enough. The best studies in these publications will be "peer reviewed," having gone through a process of evaluation by other professionals in their field before being perused by you.

What Kinds of "Studies" Were Used?

So you are insisting that the HCG Hormone Diet really works because of "studies" that have "proven" it to be successful. There are all kinds of research studies that have "hidden variables" in them that can make the results seem to be proving its hypothesis, such as the 500 calorie diet that followers have to maintain. Another example could be a study that examines how much people lose weight while drinking milk but not take into account how much exercise they did during the study.  

Look for articles that cite large-scale studies over a long period of time - the larger the better. A good example is the Nurses Health Study, which has been following 238,000 nurses since its inception in 1976. Take the hypothesis that red meat is bad for you. The more long-term and large-scale studies there are that point to this, then the more you might want to avoid red meat.

Another trait of a good study will be the method used. A double blind study means that not only the tested but the testers do not know who had which treatment. If a researcher does not conduct a study that is either blind or double blind, then there could be bias or what is called the placebo effect-- which means that the subjects studied thought something will happen, thus creating a psychological self-fulfilling effect.

Ask the Experts

Unfortunately, the best articles also tend to have lots of scientific jargon that is hard for a non-health professional to understand. If you don't have a lot of time to make sure your latest favorite nutrition info is accurate, make sure your article follows these tips mentioned and run it by your doctor and registered dietitian, as it is their job to read the journals and stay on top of their fields.

Who's Behind the Article

Numerous studies have conflicts of interest. Look to see who funded the study-- often this information is given at the end of the article. For example, should research on artificial sweeteners be trusted if it is funded by that industry?


Catherine S. Hains, MS RD has been interested in health and nutrition since she was a young child. Growing up in Fort Worth, TX, she earned a Bachelor's Degree in Broadcast Journalism from Texas Christian University and wrote for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for 12 years. Her life-long interest in nutrition and disease prevention never waned, and she went on to earn her Master's Degree in Nutrition from Eastern Michigan University. Cathy, now a Registered Dietitian, owns Lighthouse Nutrition and Wellness in Gig Harbor, WA where she enjoys inspiring people of all ages to make losing weight and living a healthy lifestyle easy, fun and permanent. She enjoys good food, cooking and food preparation, and showing others how healthy this can be. Her other pastimes include traveling, art, music and family life. She also likes staying fit with tennis, bicycling walking and jogging, researching nutrition and helping clients be at their best. For more information on Cathy, visit www.lighthouse-nutrition.com or write to Catherine at info@lighthouse-nutrition.com.


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