It sounds too good to be true: chocolate can help you lose weight. A study published in the non-peer reviewed journal International Archives of Medicine suggested that a group of participants who consumed chocolate lost weight faster than a group who did not. Sounds like a dream to a chocoholic like me.
The thing is, the study was fake.
In a recent post to the site io9, writer John Bohannon described how he made up a research institute, conducted a bogus study, and got the results published in a journal. His point: the media don’t dig deeply enough into the accuracy of scientific research when it comes to nutrition.
Though Bohannon’s study outcomes were real, he says that the study itself was ‘junk science’ because the test groups he used were too small to yield meaningful results. In his post he writes:
‘Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a ‘statistically significant’ result.’
Whether or not you think Bohannon’s sting operation was ethical (and there are those who call him out for irresponsibly duping the public), his scheme raises questions about what nutrition news and information we can trust.
For answers, I rang up Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of the Ottawa-based Bariatric Medical Institute and writer of the blog WeightyMatters.ca.
Though Freedhoff is among those who found Bohannon’s scheme unethical, he did find the story raised an interesting point. ‘It speaks to the fact that nutrition research and its coverage aren’t necessarily one and the same,’ he tells me. ‘We don’t understand nutrition nearly as well as the public would like to believe.’
At issue, he says, is that many of us cling to the notion that science will uncover a magic food, pill or exercise that will solve the complex problem of healthy diet and nutrition. But, says Freedhoff, ‘the inconvenient truth to healthy living is that it requires effort.’ In short, if a weight-loss or nutrition solution sounds too good to be true, the research likely isn’t there to back it up.
Yet headlines reporting sensational breakthroughs will continue to compete for our attention. How can you evaluate health and wellness news when you don’t have the time or knowledge (or inclination, quite frankly) to do a lot of research yourself?
Freedhoff suggests using social media to create your own ‘army of curators’ to act as filters for all the news and information that comes at your each day. ‘There are lots of individuals, whether they’re health reporters, researchers or clinicians, who provide good information. Cultivate your own group of information providers whose ideas and information and rigour you feel are beyond reproach.’
And a good rule of thumb when evaluating diet and nutrition advice is to remember the basics: cook the majority of your meals from whole foods, exercise and minimize processed foods. It’s not a quick fix, but it’s what works in the long run.