Deciphering Health Studies

Reports on health studies appear on the news regularly, but the information is often misleading or very confusing. How can you know what to believe?

Reports on health studies appear on the news regularly. You might read one study that touts the benefits of a food – like chocolate, for example—while a different study doesn’t find the same benefits. These differing reports can get confusing . . . who you should believe?

Study Basics

Scientific studies are done in order to test a hypothesis—an assumption that needs to be investigated further. There are different types of studies—some look at past data collected while others compare data from subjects over months or even years. Other studies divide the group of subjects into 2 groups, giving only 1 of the groups the "treatment" (or food) while the other group is given a "control" oftentimes called a placebo.

The results are then compiled, statistical analysis is performed and conclusions are drawn.

The Issues

Several factors can make or break a study. It’s important to pay attention to the details when you look into the findings of any study.

  • Number of subjects: A strong study has thousands or even hundreds of thousands of subjects as opposed to 10 or 100.
  • Length of study: Longer studies (5, 10 or 20 years) are much stronger than a study conducted for several weeks or months.
  • The sponsor: Always check who paid for the study. Many of the studies touting the benefits of coconuts were sponsored by the countries who export the fruit.
  • Media gone wild: When the media blows the study results out of proportion it can wreak havoc. A recent study on chocolate had the media claiming that chocolate can help you stay thin -- swaying the public that it’s beneficial to overindulge in the sweet stuff.
Who Should You Believe?

Science is always evolving. New studies and information are discovered regularly. It’s important to look at all the factors of the study and to review past studies to see if all the information makes sense. Before taking anyone’s word for it, check the original study yourself. Usually you can Google and find a link to the original study online. (When we talk about a study here on Healthy Eats, we always try to link out to the original study.)

And always remember, if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby's full bio »

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