Consuming Nutrition Research Part I

Recently, I wrote a short and well-received Instagram post about consuming research. However, after the antics at my fire house yesterday, I guess that a more comprehensive post is in order! Welcome to part one of: consuming nutrition research.

Yesterday, I worked with a young man who is heavily involved in his own health and fitness; in fact, he lost 90# prior to being hired at the fire department. He not only lost the weight but has impressively maintained that weight loss for several years. This accomplishment, in and of itself is an amazing feat and for that I respect him very much!

As with any transformation story, his is ever evolving. He is working hard on learning more about exercise, nutrition and behavioral change and for that I commend him. However, when cross-referenced with the Dunning-Kruger Effect chart, his confidence in his knowledge level is much higher than his actual competence.

No big deal, it happens to EVERYONE, but yesterday I had to school him a little bit. Luckily, he’s a good sport and has given me permission to share both this story and a quick video we shot at the station yesterday.

I was working in my office and I heard him speaking about the risk vs rewards of brown vs white rice. My ears perked up when I heard the terms I never speak: “ALWAYS and NEVER”. I snickered to myself a little bit remembering my many conversations with Scott Forbes, PhD and one of the leading creatine researchers in the world. Scott doesn’t EVER use the words ALWAYS or NEVER. In fact, he says “it depends” quite often. Subject matter experts keep in mind that everything is situation dependent, so “always” and “never” are not in their usual vocabulary.

While listening to the conversation, I kept my mouth shut, but then this bomb dropped from the Firefighter’s lips: “I saw the information on YouTube.”

Game over kiddo. I picked up the phone and paged out the following: “YouTube is NOT a credible source of scientific information!! Please come to the Lieutenant’s office!”

We had a brief discussion about where credible scientific information could be located and I suggested he check out Google Scholar. PubMed is also a great place to find research. Regardless, he looked up an article on Google Scholar and then we shot the following video:

I understand his frustration. How do you read scientific articles and interpret them when you’re not a scientist? How do you sort through the minefield of jargon and the plethora of individuals cherry-picking details and spouting their opinion? (looking at you network newscasters and magazine author gurus)

Let’s start with what we can likely all agree on regarding nutrition:

  • Nutrition science is in infancy…unlike astronomy (the study of which is at least 5000 years old) we have only been studying nutrition for a little over 100 years

  • Nutrition research is difficult to do!

  • The whole is greater than the sum of the parts; we don’t eat NUTRIENTS in isolation, we eat food and MEALS

  • Randomized trials aren’t always practical and double-blind placebo-controlled trials are quite difficult when looking at nutrition science! (It’s challenging to hide the fact that the hamburger group is getting a hamburger and the whey protein group is getting a whey protein shake; also very difficult to cage humans and control their every movement and ingested calories)

  • Nutrition isn’t just ONE thing. It’s complex. It is chemistry, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, psychology and probably more disciplines I’m not even considering right now

  • Unfortunately, *thoughts* and *feelings* and *emotions* and *n=1* get in the way. People tend to get religious and zealous about nutrition.

  • There is no one size fits all; confounding factors in genetics and environment serve to complicate results in individuals

  • As with any scientific discipline, we are subject to confirmation bias; meaning we tend to focus on what supports our case and disregard what does not

  • Correlation is not causation. Kids with bigger feet are better at math! But kids with bigger feet are also OLDER.

  • When asking “what’s the best ______?”, CONTEXT matters

  • What is the outcome goal?

  • Can the individual complete the BEHAVIORS required to achieve the outcome goal?

  • Aesthetics, performance, general health, mental health and specific disease processes all likely have differing nutritional and behavioral requirements

Hopefully this little summary helps to demonstrate that nutrition is complex and it’s not as simple as just saying “don’t eat brown rice, it’s not as good for you as white rice because YouTube.”

Next week: Tips for reading and understanding research for yourself so you don’t fall into the YouTube trap.