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What You Need To Know About The Science Behind Food Studies

Every week, it seems like a new study throws what we know about nutrition into shambles. It only gets more confusing if these findings contradict long-held beliefs, or even if it opposes research that was just done the previous month. One day you might read about how coffee is found to be good for your health, and a few weeks later that study gets disproved.

There’s a continual battle between science and the media over whether or not full-fat dairy is good for you, or if it shortens your lifespan. And as soon as you start to examine the pros and cons of different types of diets (Mediterranean, Paleo, et cetera), it gets so confusing that it’s no wonder the average citizen has a hard time navigating the grocery store. Although it’s a good sign that you want to stay on top of the most recent food studies, it’s easy to become disillusioned or completely confused.

When it comes to figuring out which nutritional evidence you can trust, you need to think critically and keep an open mind. Rather than simply accepting all stories as gospel, it’s important to look at the origins of the studies, where they’re coming from, and who the authors are. It could be that the most recent expert study on nutrition is only an expert case of good marketing, and not something you should be building your diet around.

Consider The Motivations

Focusing on the truth behind certain nutritional studies doesn’t necessarily mean you have to put a tinfoil hat on — it just means that you need to be aware of why specific research makes it to mainstream media, as well as who might be sponsoring it. Funding bias means that the research could actually be sponsored by a big company that wants to influence the results in a way that makes their product look good. When it comes to food and nutritional studies, companies can be sponsoring these studies and using research to support claims that could potentially benefit their bottom line.

Two words to turn a dubious eye to are “clinical studies.” Although they might make a report sound reputable, many of these studies are aimed more toward selling a product than they are improving health. Dr. Marion Nestle, a well-known nutrition and food studies professor at New York University, tracks corporate-funded studies and whose interests they serve.

Overwhelmingly, these clinical studies favor the company’s interests, not the public’s. “I have 95 published studies funded by every food company you can think of that favor that company’s interests,” Nestle said. “I’ve found nine that don’t.” This quote alone should get you thinking more critically when you see a groundbreaking nutritional study published in an online news source.

Unfortunately, a lot of this marketing also plays on our instincts to take the shortest route to the biggest prize — that is, looking for the magic pill to good health. Often these studies simplify their results so that their findings look like a quick fix to health. If we are told by scientists that we should drink a glass of wine per day to make ourselves healthier, then we can feel better about that glass of wine, and also feel good about making a change to improve our health. After all, if we assumed we were healthy, there wouldn’t be any market for products that promise to bring us good health.

It’s almost a game of insecurity — and no matter how smart we may think we are, it’s easy to fall into the marketing trap when it promises quick results with little effort. Combine this with the fact that our buying habits are predictable — and becoming more easily tracked all the time, thanks to technology — and in some cases, there’s no escaping targeted marketing. Food companies are getting smarter all the time, and they want to make sure that the average American relies on mass media to teach them about nutrition, even though it’s those very companies that are controlling the message.

Get Educated

With so many conflicting studies out there — not to mention ones that may be covertly sponsored by big brands that have their own best interests in mind, not yours — where do you turn if you’re looking for a study to trust?

One thing you can do is educate yourself on what constitutes healthy food. Clearly natural, unprocessed food items are the way to go, but it’s also good to be critical of so-called “improved” foods (think POM Wonderful’s massive campaign to make pomegranate juice the next big thing in health or Dannon’s insistence that their Activia yogurt can promote healthy digestion — these claims were debunked).

Don’t let cynicism stop you from trying new things, but keep an eye out for typical buzzwords meant to distract you from what’s actually under that packaging. Anything that makes a bold claim might just be window dressing, and stating that something like popped rice chips are healthy warrants further examination (especially when touted as being “healthier than potato chips,” which is not a high bar to reach).

Another important thing to learn is your own body. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to health, yet that’s exactly what marketing companies want you to think. If they make the claim that their product will help you lose weight and gain heart health — in the unlikely event that it does work — it might not work on your particular body. Everyone is made up of different genes and different metabolisms, and what genuinely promotes good health in one person might not be the same for another.

Some of these products are nothing but placebos, and some of them rely on the contradictory confusion of food studies to lure you into false hope. It’s vital that you take your nutrition and diet into your own hands, and pick and choose what studies to believe. Always keep in mind that if something sounds too good to be true (studies on Coca-Cola that say it’s actually healthy, for instance), it probably is.

Always Think Critically

Conflicting nutritional studies are becoming so frequent these days that it’s no wonder many people are getting confused over the health of certain foods. While it’s good that people take their healthy choices seriously, it’s a smart move to go one step further and consider the sources of these studies as well as their credibility. It’s easy to believe in what marketing tells you; it’s harder to think critically about what actually lies under the surface. Yet the latter will go much farther in helping you get in tune with your own health — and make good food choices — than anything dictated in a research study.

What’s the most outrageous claim you’ve ever seen about a food product? Tell us in the comments.

Cortney Berling
Cortney Berling is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Tri-City Medical Center, a full-service, acute-care hospital located in Oceanside, California. She received her Bachelor of Science in Dietetics at The University of Cincinnati and completed her dietetic internship at The Cleveland Clinic. You can often find Cortney enjoying the San Diego weather where she spends most of her time running, playing beach volleyball, paddle boarding, and hiking.

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