Take the News with a Grain of Salt

Dish of Cookies   by Maren Sederquist, MES, CSCS, CPT

The media is full of stories about the latest health and fitness research. Unfortunately, much of what you read and hear is just that... stories. Headlines are written to grab your attention, not to give you the boring truth. Learn how to take the news with a grain of salt and read between the lines to find the information that's valuable to you. Also learn how to dig deeper into studies to see if their design validates the results. And learn how to tell if it's too good to be true.

Media

Here's a recent example for you. It's widely held that low-fat diets help reduce the risk of breast and colon cancer and heart disease. Results from the Women's Health Initiative Study, a study of almost 49,000 women over 50, were recently published in the Journal of American Medical Association. They found that a low-fat diet alone does not significantly reduce the risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer or heart disease. BUT there's so much more to it than that.

First of all, there was a 9 percent lower rate of breast cancer in the low-fat group. Not statistically significant maybe, but significance might be found if the study was done better.

Researchers also found lower rates of polyps, one of the warning signs of colorectal cancer, in women on a low-fat diet. Another sign low-fat is the right direction.

How could the study have done better?

The group of women who were asked to eat low-fat were given a goal of 20% of their calories coming from fat. However, they only succeeded in reducing their fat intake to 24% in the beginning and it gradually rose to 29% by the end of the eight years. What would the results have been if they stuck to 20%? They also didn't differentiate between the "healthy" unsaturated fat and "unhealthy" saturated fat and trans fats. We already know different fats have very different effects on cholesterol, so the type of fat you consume might be more important than the total amount of fat, when it comes to other heart disease risk factors and cancers.

The low-fat group ate slightly less fat, but not significantly less calories. One of the biggest risk factors for breast cancer is being overweight. Many of the women in the study remained overweight.

Those in the low-fat group were asked to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily, but they even counted iceberg lettuce, and they only ate one more serving per day than the control group.

The low-fat group was also asked to eat 6 servings of grains per day, but there was no differentiation between a slice of whole grain bread and a Twinkie!

Recent research also has suggested that for breast cancer in particular, earlier eating habits may have the most influence on risk, so making changes over age 50 might not have the same benefit.

Last but not least, the women were only studied over an 8 year period. That might be insufficient follow-up time to see significant results.


Unfortunately many people stop at the headlines. The Associated Press read "Study: Reducing fat didn't reduce cancer, heart risks for older women" and the Mercury News simply said: "Study: low-fat diet no help". It does people a disservice to make such a simple statement when there's so much more to it than that.

Journalists make their own interpretations when they write summaries. They may not know how to sift through the intricate details of a well-designed research study, but more often, they're trying to slant the results to create headlines. Doesn't "Low-fat diet no help" grab your attention better than a "Maybe, maybe not" or "We don't know yet for sure" headline?

To their credit, journalists often show hints of the truth within their articles, but I can't tell you how many clients I've talked to who just read the headline and didn't dive further into it. Or who just heard the headline on TV and didn't get to hear the whole story.

Media Information Questions to Ask

  • Is the source reputable? (A peer-reviewed medical journal would be at the top.)
  • Are there any references or scientific studies cited?
  • Do the conclusions sound too simple for a complex study?

Research 

A well-designed research study has many subjects, is given enough time to bear results, is randomized, has a control group and is double blind - meaning neither the subjects nor the researchers know who's in which group. Even when all the variables are controlled well, there can be errors. Even then, one study is not definitive. Results are not considered proven until they've been replicated multiple times.

Research Study Questions to Ask

  • Were there any inconsistencies?
  • Was there a conflict of interest for those who funded the study?
  • What might be the motives of the researchers?
  • Have other studies replicated the same results?
  • Were external factors controlled?
  • Were internal variables accounted for?
  • How do the results fit in the context of other research in the same area?
  • Were the test subjects appropriate for the study and results?

Products and Services

Once you get out of the news, the search for the truth becomes even harder. Advertisers know all the tricks to try to get you to believe there's research behind their product or service. Keep a watchful eye for exceptional marketing copy.

Be Aware Of:

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
  • A product that claims to be a cure-all.
  • Programs that offer a "quick fix" or a result that's "instant", "amazing" or "miraculous".
  • Advertising that claims a "cure", a "secret", an "ancient ingredient" or a "scientific breakthrough".
  • Claims that are vague.
  • Too much enthusiasm.
  • Anecdotal evidence. One personal experience doesn't mean it'll apply to everyone.
  • Testimonials with no names.
  • Experts without credentials.
  • Fictitious satisfied customers.
  • Fine print and disclaimers.

The bottom line is that you have to use common sense, ask questions and have a healthy dose of skepticism when you read health and fitness news. Just because you read something in the newspaper, magazine or book, it doesn't mean it's true. Just because you heard something from family or friends, doesn't mean it'll work for you. And just because an "expert" told you it was so on the TV or radio, it doesn't mean they have the final answer.

The news could be true. We won't know unless we keep conducting studies, and sometimes we have to try things before we can wait for the final answer. Just make sure you're looking for answers that usually point toward moderation, and if they don't, take them with a grain of salt.

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