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Nutrition Nerd: Evaluating Nutrition and Exercise Claims

Posted Oct 26 2012 12:11pm

Before we get to today’s post I want to encourage everyone with a fall marathon/other big race to go back and look at two previous posts. First, is one I wrote concerning Immunonutrition Support . Endurance events can be a huge shock to our bodies putting us at risk for a few days post event to developing an upper respiratory tract infection. Check out that article to help stay healthy. The second, is from Sarah who writes the Runner’s Plate column and covers Preventing Post Marathon Weight Gain . Cutting back on your mileage? Time to re-evaluate your caloric needs!

Now onward with today’s post. Something that makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs and rip my hair out is seeing posts/facebook status/tweets/news articles/etc providing inaccurate nutrition and exercise information. It frustrates me that the public is often trusting these “sources” to provide them with information, yet they are not getting the whole truth. Therefore I have come up with a 4 step system that you can use to evaluate nutrition/exercise/health information that you come across.

STEP 1- Erase the Headline From Your Memory: Headlines are designed to grab your attention and pull you in to the article. Fine, go ahead and read the article/post/whatever, but realize the large, bolded, lead-in text doesn’t offer the whole story. Headlines have a tendency to be overly simplistic and inaccurate. How many times have you come across a headline/title like “7 Cancer Fighting Foods”, “Slim Down with These Natural Fat Burners”, “The Dangers of Artificial Sweetners”? Probably more than once. Yet a careful read through the article will probably reveal that studies have shown feeding rats ridiculously high doses of some compound in a food, not even an actual piece of produce or whatever other food is being promoted, was associated with decreased carcinoma. Not exactly compelling evidence.

STEP 2- Find the Original Source and Other Related Studies: Health and performance related articles are often written about recently published “hot topic” peer-reviewed literature. However, liberties could be taken by the journalist (who probably has little background specifically in the article they are writing about) to make the conclusions seem more solid than they actually are. Therefore, have a look at the original peer-reviewed article if you can. Granted, without a research and science background, delving in to the scientific literature is a daunting task and may not be the best use of your time. Therefore, also take a moment to do a search on PubMed of similar studies. A quick scroll thrrough the titles and abstracts can help inform you if the conclusion from the lay article you read is based upon a larger body of literature or is simply “cherry picked” data or an opinion piece. A recent example of this is all of the hype surrounding a gluten free diet and how it is “the latest and greatest” and wheat consumption is evil and will cause everything from obesity and cardiovascular disease to Alzhiemers and being dumped by your significant other (haha, anyone paying attention and catch that insertion?). Yet a search through scientific evidence does not turn up overwhelming support in favor of a gluten free diet (unless you have Celiac disease) or against wheat consumption.

STEP 3- Is Something Being Sold and is it Based on Human Research?: If what you are reading has a hidden, or not so hidden agenda to sell a product, proceed cautiously. For the most part everyone has an agenda. When a company is promoting a product you can bet their motivation is sales. If the only studies they have to “prove” why their supplment/product/diet/etc is the best way to go are internal and not published in peer reviewed literature (i.e. – check PubMed) on HUMAN subjects then go ahead and delete that screen and go along with your life. I’m not saying animal studies don’t provide us with important information, because they do, but not everything that is found in a cell or animal model will translate in to humans. Therefore, from a public perspective I wouldn’t jump on board the latest fad if it doesn’t have sufficient support based upon studies in actual humans.

STEP 4 – Go to the Experts: Have questions? Still unsure? One of my favorite things about the social media boom is that the scientists performing nutrition and exercise-based research are getting in on the action as well. Find the authors of peer-reviewed papers on the subject you are interested in on Twitter and ask them to help you decipher their findings and the information you have come across from other sources. In my experience these researchers have been more than happy to help breakdown the complexities of their work and translate the results in to meaningfully useful information you can apply to your life.

Where do you turn for ‘trusted’ information? Magazines, newspapers, blogs, your friend’s FB status updates? How do you evaluate the merit of the information presented? What questionable nutrition-based articles have you come across lately?


(Tanya is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and is pursuing her PhD in Nutrition and Exercise Science at Virginia Tech. After graduating with her Bachelor’s in Dietetics, Tanya completed an American Dietetic Association (ADA) approved Dietetic Internship through the University of Houston. She has completed many road races from 5k to 25k. Follow her on Twitter @nutritionnerd and at her personal blog Dine, Dash & Deadlift .)


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