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Bite Sized Science or Can I trust Nutritional Studies?

By the time menopause hits, most women start getting jazzed about healthy eating. It’s like the body starts flashing „maintenance required“ signs and decides to shake things up a bit. Enter: belly fat.

That’s when nutrition studies swoop in to save the day. The media usually serves us bite-sized summaries and women hop on them like the last bus of the night. Especially when some bombastic headline screams „BREAKING NEWS“. But then, why are nutrition studies such a head-scratcher?

Study A says „X“ is bad for you, while Study B is like „X is your new best friend“.

Ask about red wine: „Is it healthy?“ and you’ll get a mixed bag of yes, maybe, and nope. If you tried to live off foods that every study labelled as „undeniably healthy“, you’d probably starve faster than you can say „kale smoothie“.

Take raspberries, for instance: a study from China gave them two thumbs up for blood pressure. But then a Finnish party pooper couldn’t back that up.

Or let’s chat about beta-carotene, Vitamin A’s wingman: it’s supposed to fight cancer with its antioxidant mojo. But crank up the dose and suddenly it’s playing for team pro-oxidant, potentially cheering on certain cancers.

Don’t freak out, I’ll spill the beans later in the text and tell you why all these studies might just be different pieces of the same puzzle…And, by the way, if you want to learn more about “Busting Myths, Boosting Health”, you should get my free E-Book. In this book I tell you some of the stories, myths, but also grains of truth in nutrition.

Why are nutrition studies often contradictory?

 Study Design

There are countless ways researchers can tackle a problem. It’s a whole different ballgame whether you’re zooming in on just one component of a food or using the whole enchilada. Case in point: the „Raspberry Debacle„. The Chinese team studied raspberry extract, while the Finns went all in with fresh berries. No wonder comparing these studies is like comparing apples and oranges.

Test Subjects

Are we testing these nutrition theories on humans or critters? Both have their place, especially in the early days of research when we’re basically feeling around in the dark, it’s easier to poke and prod animals since you can control every variable.

Back to our berry saga: the Chinese were monitoring extract effects on specially bred hypertensive rats. The Finns, on the flip side, were watching humans munching on fresh raspberries.

Another nugget from my E-Book: researchers found sugar is more addictive than cocaine in rats (yep, rats picked sugar). Try that experiment with humans and you’d be in a world of trouble. For all German speaking ladies: Sugar was the topic of an interview I had with the German women’s magazine FÜR SIE. You can listen to the full interview here:  Podcast Link (please scroll down to #2: So klappt das…)

Individual Factors

Age, sex, genetic variations, lifestyle – these all throw a wrench in the works. If I wanted to study „hot flashes“, I wouldn’t draft a bunch of dudes, young or old, as my guinea pigs. And if I’m diving into metabolic diseases, I’d sure as heck want to know if type 2 diabetes is making the family rounds. That’s where the real detective work begins: are bad genes or bad diets the culprit?

Data Collection, Processing, and Interpretation

This is a biggie and researchers must document this like they’re writing their memoirs, including any potential pitfalls that could skew the results.

Enter „data cleaning„: it’s not just allowed in studies; it’s pretty much part of the deal. If there are outliers messing with your results or if the data screams „ERROR“, then those bits can be tossed out. But this must be clear as day in your paperwork.

The way we gather data is crucial. If you have your cute little rodents in a lab and you’re monitoring every single bite they take, you’ve hit the jackpot. Of course, we can’t quite pull off that level of scrutiny with humans.

But since nutrition studies love to play the long game, participants usually end up filling out surveys or getting grilled in interviews. Let’s just say these methods aren’t foolproof. When it comes to self-monitoring, like keeping a food diary, stuff gets forgotten – most times it’s no biggie, but sometimes folks play hooky from the rules on purpose. Confession time: Did you find yourself in a fit of frustration last week and end up inhaling everything in your fridge? Maybe even tackled half of a gargantuan chocolate cheesecake? Would you put this in writing for a study?

And if you’re face-to-face with an interviewer, whether you find them charming or repulsive can totally throw off your game.

How can I spot credible nutrition studies?

There are a few tell-tale signs of a study’s credibility:

Large Sample Sizes

In nutrition research, you want a beefy group of human (or animal) participants. That’s how you get results that aren’t just applicable to one’s chain-smoking granny who lived to 100. Your grandma might provide insights for case study, but Individual cases don’t cut the mustard in nutrition science. You might want to report on your granny, formulate questions, make assumptions, even draw conclusions – as long as it’s crystal clear to the reader.

Study Design

The crème de la crème is the randomized controlled double-blind study.

In a double-blind study, neither participants nor researchers know who is receiving the treatment and who is receiving the placebo. This helps to prevent bias in the results. To administer a double-blind study, treatments are labelled with unique codes known only to the person assigning the treatments. The researchers and participants remain unaware of the actual treatment assignments until the study is completed.

Surveys and interviews are popular tools in the research world, sniffing out any contradictions. But if a researcher thinks they can whip up some survey questions in a jiffy, they’re in for a wild ride. Questions need to be test-driven, scales need a performance review, and tough decisions need to be made. And as a researcher, you’ve got to have a solid alibi for picking this particular tool. Maybe it’s a practical reason like „it’s a breeze to dish out and dissect“. Transparency is key—no room for shadiness here!

Observational studies are another valuable tool in a researcher’s toolbox. They observe and gather data on individuals in their natural environment, without any interference or manipulation by the researchers. Researchers don’t intervene or impose any treatments or conditions on the participants.

The challenges of long-term observations are like trying to keep a potted plant alive for years—people move, change habits, and sometimes drop out of studies. Everything needs to be documented, and it requires a hefty amount of time and resources to keep track of participants over extended periods.

A classic example is the Framingham Heart Study, which kicked off in 1948 and has been dissecting the causes and risks of heart disease ever since.

The fancier and more complex the study design, the pricier it is.

Funding Sources

This is a big one: who’s ordering and footing the bill for the study?

Yes, studies can cost an arm and a leg. The rub with nutritional science is that food is big business, and food giants often have their fingers in the pie, influencing which questions get asked and which answers get served—or buried.

It’s even wilder with supplements or diet shakes. You’ll see ads boasting about studies bankrolled and executed by the very companies selling the stuff. They slap a model in a white lab coat on it to give it that „trust me, I’m almost a doctor“ vibe. Loads of these self-run studies are dodgy, sometimes downright dangerous.

Even pros sometimes can’t see through all of these shenanigans.

So, one of my go-to questions is: who’s sponsoring this shindig? If a sugar industry honcho claims their study says sugar is as healthy as a morning jog and won’t make you chubby (yep, it’s happened), I’ll just leave it there.

If you’re up for a wild ride through the world of phony studies and media deception, dive into my e-book „Busting Myths, Boosting Health.“ You’ll uncover the juicy details of a „FAKE“ study that was cooked up to show how you can bamboozle not just the media, but even the so-called experts, and get them to spread all sorts of nonsense.

How can I, as a consumer, tell if a nutrition study is credible?

Consider Personal Factors

Factors like age, gender, and health condition need to be taken into account. To figure out if the results of a particular study apply to you and whether you can take action based on these results, factors like your age, and your current health status need to be factored in.

In my line of work, focusing on women in menopause, finding studies, conducted on women in this stage of life, is a real challenge.

It’s (nearly) like trying to find a unicorn in the wild—locating studies on women is a real challenge thanks to their hormonal rollercoaster and the whole pregnancy gig, which turns them into complex study subjects. For years, big pharma had a thing for using men as guinea pigs because they were supposedly more predictable. Can you believe it? It’s like using a map of Mars to navigate Earth.

The danger in relying on these findings to treat life-threatening illnesses in women is no joke. Sadly, even today, the survival rate for women after a heart attack is lower than for men. Why? Because the symptoms are different, and it takes ages (way too long) to get the right treatment.

And menopause? That’s a whole different ball game: every woman is different, and that’s where rats seem easier to deal with (Warning: that was irony).

Review Multiple Nutrition Studies

You should check out several studies on the same topic, especially comparing the details. Sometimes, the studies aren’t so contradictory but rather complement each other.

Take intermittent fasting, for example: it can improve sleep quality. But it can also mess with sleep phases. In one case, they studied folks who are naturally stress-resistant adrenaline junkies. They slept better. Sensitive people with high cortisol levels (hello, menopause) are more sensitive here and might (or might not) have trouble sleeping.

Take beta-carotene: when you dig into the details, the contradictions aren’t really contradictions, but more like pieces of the same puzzle: beta-carotene (a precursor of Vitamin A) is supposed to prevent cancer, but high doses act as pro-oxidants and can, under certain conditions, promote cancer. So, it’s the dose that logically leads to different results.

Who Funded the Study?

Funding on a study does not only affect study design (see above), but there is more. Are researchers susceptible to bribery? Not really – trustworthy and credible researchers wouldn’t manipulate study results. But if a food manufacturer commissions a study and the results don’t meet their expectations, the study simply won’t see the light of day. This phenomenon is called “publication bias”.

Peer Review – What Do Other Experts Say?

Peer review means the study has been scrutinized by experts in the field. In research language:

Peer review is designed to assess the validity, quality and often the originality of articles for publication. Its ultimate purpose is to maintain the integrity of science by filtering out invalid or poor-quality articles.”

It’s a critical but very useful process. Colleagues can provide helpful insights on where more work might be needed.

Where Was the Study Published?

Credible studies are published in reputable scientific journals and have to go through a long process, until they get approved and published. There are so-called predatory journals

“Predatory Journals take advantage of authors by asking them to publish for a fee without providing peer-review or editing services. Because predatory publishers do not follow the proper academic standards for publishing, they usually offer a quick turnaround on publishing a manuscript.”

Never Rely on Just One Study

If a topic is interesting and important to you, form an opinion based on multiple sources. That’s how science works: every credible study is a tiny piece of a puzzle, and only when enough pieces come together can we glimpse the whole picture. Even if some pieces are missing, it becomes clearer which „spots“ need closer examination.

So, what’s the deal with red wine?

Yes, there are studies showing that a component of red wine (resveratrol) does have a positive effect on people with pre-existing heart conditions. But according to another study, this doesn’t apply to regular red wine consumption because the resveratrol isn’t dosed high enough.

But larger amounts of red wine mean more alcohol, which is harmful again… In this debate, I’d put the studies aside for a moment and enjoy a good glass of wine with loved ones. The dose makes the poison, and with an occasional glass of wine, alcohol isn’t the main player.

And let’s be real: who drinks wine to protect their heart? And if I treat myself to a piece of dark chocolate containing resveratrol, at least I’ll have a clear conscience.

Science Research Studies

My Conclusion

When a study tells you that XYZ is „healthy for you“, the first thing you should ask is: what does „healthy“ even mean here? What if I have pre-existing conditions—will I be cured? And how does the study claim to know me so well?

Yes, it’s tempting to dive headfirst into nutrition studies. After all, nutrition is a crucial part of life and is mostly under our control.

We can constantly make new choices about what we want to eat and what we don’t. And finding the optimal diet for us can contribute so much to our health and well-being that every woman should acquire some knowledge about it. In summary, we always need to stay critical when it comes to nutrition studies and consider various sources to obtain reliable information. And what we should always do is question things critically. My dear, I hope this topic helps you a bit when you’re feeling lost with studies. Yes, science might seem like a dry field, but it can also be seen from a humorous angle.

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