To Understand Nutrition Science, Go Beyond the Headlines
Headlines are meant to sell. They are not meant to explain. The purpose of headlines is, in internet parlance to entice us to click through, and in days gone by to purchase a newspaper/magazine. Unfortunately, science doesn’t usually translate well into a headline. Nor can science really be communicated in 140 characters. That is why most tweets by @DSMNutrition have links to blogs. The goal is to provide followers with more detailed information which helps add perspective to the latest study. The intent is to integrate these new findings with context in the greater body of scientific literature.
Nutrition science is complicated. Sometimes nutrition research focuses on dietary and/or lifestyle choices (Monsivais et al, 2013). Other studies are specific to a nutrient; trying to understand whether vitamin E status affects fracture risk in older men and women. [And it does; low serum α-tocopherol levels are associated with increased fracture rates (Michaelsson et al, 2014)]. And this blog does not even attempt to cover animal and cell culture studies which help elucidate mechanisms of action. Yet, these too can make headlines.
A good study summary will describe the research participants (animal or human). It will inform the reader about the type of study – intervention trial, prospective case-control, epidemiological, etc. The results will be outlined. There will be a detailed explanation of the results (with statistics) and the discussion should help readers understand if the conclusions are clinically or physiological relevant. A good writer will be certain to explain if the nutrient-structure/function relationship is causal or correlative. For example, a correlative relationship exists between serum 25(OH)D concentrations and risk of multiple health outcomes. [For an interesting read, see the ‘Best and Worst Science Stories of 2013’ by Tabitha Powledge (@tamfecit)].
General advice. Don’t believe headlines screaming that the sky is falling because a new study finds that everything we believed about nutrition or nutrient X is wrong. Science doesn’t progress that quickly. For example, if you want to read more about the Physicians’ Health Study and whether to continue taking a multivitamin/mineral supplement, read this excellent summary by the Linus Pauling Institute (@LPlatOSU), “Multivitamins are not miracles…but they are important”.
In his article “What I learned from six months of GMO research: none of it matters”, Nathanael Johnson (@Savor Tooth), writes that the term GMO may be a metaphor about our comfort in the future of science and technology to feed and nourish humans. The debate is emotional because the outcome is in the future. It is unknowable to us. This mentality may explain why food and nutrition headlines are especially compelling. Thinking about our diet is a very emotional concept. We have differing opinions, and fears of the unknown, which drive our faith in the role of food vs medicine to maintain our health. Can the world be fed exclusively with natural/GMO-free food sources? Should we use dietary supplements to meet nutrient requirements or not? Is our food supply sustainable or not? These are complex questions. The answers will come with time. In the meantime, the truth is that nutrition guidance is never as simple as a headline.
Monsivais P, Perrigue MM, Adams SL, Drewnowski A. Measuring diet cost at the individual level: a comparision of three methods. 2013 Eur J Clin Nutr doi:10.1038/ejcn.2013.176
Michaelsson K, Wolk A, Byberg L, Arnlov J, Melhus H. Intake and serum concentrations of α-tocopherol in relation to fractures in elderly women and men: 2 cohort studies. 2014 Am J Clin Nutr doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.064691
Bischoff-Ferrari HA, Giovannucci E, Willett WC, Dietrich T, Dawson-Hughes B. Estimation of optimal serum concentrations of 25-hydroxyvitamin D for multiple health outcomes. 2006 Am J Clin Nutr 84:18-28