Understanding Health Studies

Health may be the most difficult subject there is to research. You might not think it is true with all the information in the news. There are dozens of new health studies written every day. It's been that way for years, and yet, it seems that our overall progress with health seems glacially slow.

For example, I've been reading about promising cancer cures for more than 20 years. What is going on?

Health Studies

It turns out that there are a lot of reasons why there is so much confusion about nutrition and fitness as the doctors writing for Lifehacker put it. (I've made it so that link opens up in a new tab, because we will be referring to it quite a bit).

As that article indicates, keeping consumers confused is big business. It makes it clear that the "Dr. Oz"s of the world "need a steady stream of things to endorse." Further, we respond very well to actionable warnings ("salt is bad") or promises ("antioxidants are great"). Think of many billions people spend to buy books, DVD, supplements, packaged foods, etc.

As registered dietician, Andy Bellatti puts it:

"To make matters more confusing, these [food and beverage company] institutes have doctors, cardiologists, and dietitians on their payroll — as well as key media contacts — resulting in a health professional talking to media about, say, how soda is 'unfairly vilified.' Most times, the general public isn't aware that this isn't an objective health professional choosing to say that."

It's hard not to quote the whole Lifehacker article. However, it is partcularly important to cite that individual "experts" are out to confuse us for their own profit as well:

"Skwarecki's article, Why It's So Easy to Believe Our Food is Toxic, is an exceptional case study in this. She explains how 'experts' take good premises—like the need to take your health in your own hands and be critical of the things you eat and buy—and go off the rails when the sales pitch gets involved. She calls out nutrition gurus and health 'experts' you've likely seen reposted on Facebook, like Vani Hari (aka The Food Babe,) and Joseph Mercola, among others, who thrive on obfuscating nutrition so much that the only clear thing they do suggest is that you should buy their books, sponsored foods, and DVDs."

It gets worse. Lobbyists for the food industry is involved in the government guidelines. It's big business for the food pyramid/MyPlate recommendations. Kamal Patel in that Lifehacker article states:

"Government policy favors packaged foods that can display health claims (e.g. Granola bars, Lunchables) rather than natural foods that come loose or in clear plastic (e.g. strawberries, chicken thighs). Grains were originally 2-3 servings per day until food companies complained and they more than doubled the recommendation. Fruit and veggie manufacturers make very little money compared to General Mills and Unilever, so it took the National Cancer Institute to step in and tell the first-draft writers for the food pyramid that they really need to bump up the fruit and veggie intake."

And then there's the fundamental problem with research itself:

"Research results are notoriously unpredictable, since only some of the total number of studies get published. Studies have a higher chance of getting published if they show positive results, and food and supplement manufacturers can keep funding trials until one gets published."

And sometimes that research is just bad and poorly reported by the media.

So What Does this Mean?

It sounds like you should be wearing a tin foil hat as you read any health article.

However, there is a reason why Congress grills Dr. Oz for promoting bad products and saying, "I don't get why you need to say this stuff when you know it's not true." There's a reason why there are approximately 74,000 different fad diets. What's mentioned about the Coca Cola Beverage Institute makes sense. What's written about the lobbying of special interest groups in government food pyramid guidelines has been extensively covered in numerous places.

When you add it up, it's easy to see why things get really complicated.

And just when you think you can believe scientific studies, you learn that many of the initial reports we hear turn out to be false. Not only that, but "what medical researchers conclude in their studies is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong."

I'm not trying to be a Debbie Downer here. There are some great tips at the end of the Lifehacker article to help you understand what you can do to protect yourself as a consumer.

My own advice is to stick with what stands the test of time.

That weird root that you read about? Let's see if there are dozens of clinical trials covering a few hundred thousand people before we jump on it. That way we know there's not just one of two doctors working for the company promoting it. We know that it isn't one or two studies that could have had design issues or other bias.

On the other hand, there's things like "lean protein, blueberries, and fiber." I haven't met a doctor who has been against them. I haven't seen too many studies show anything really bad about them. This gives me greater confidence in them.

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Health / Fitness

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