As RDs, how do we talk about the science of nutrition when people are surrounded by a barrage of mixed-quality information in the media and can readily pose questions to “Dr. Google” with varying results?
This past fall, Cornell University invited me to its 2017 Dorothy M. Proud Lectureship. I was honored to present an update in my areas of practice—cancer prevention and survivorship and cardiometabolic health—through the lens of “headline hype” and discuss how nutrition professionals can communicate the science accurately.
Knowing that attendees would face other headlines in the future, I decided to follow the Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” I wanted to ensure that attendees, regardless of their areas of expertise, would be able to evaluate research studies and weigh their results accordingly. During the final segment of my presentation, I discussed strategies for interpreting and sharing nutrition research.
Identifying Red Flags and Key Questions
Whether speaking to students, interns, or colleagues, we need to consider important questions when discussing a study that’s making headlines. For example:
- Was it a study of humans, animals, or isolated cell components? And was it a controlled trial or an observational study (the latter of which can’t establish cause and effect)? Even for systematic reviews and meta-analyses, often considered the strongest foundation for advice, conclusions are only as strong as the quality and scope of the studies included.
- If it was a human study, who was included? If a study involved healthy 20-year-olds, we shouldn’t assume its conclusions apply to 50-year-olds with prediabetes.
- What was the comparison? An eating pattern that showed benefits compared with a no-information control or standard American (unhealthful) diet isn’t necessarily more beneficial than another healthful eating pattern.
- What adjustments were made for other factors that may influence results? For example, many of today’s chronic diseases are affected by adipose-related hormonal and metabolic changes. If an intervention resulted in weight loss, we don’t know whether results would be the same if weight stayed constant, or whether weight loss was achieved by another method.
- If the study was an intervention trial, how closely did participants comply? If anticipated benefits weren’t achieved, it’s important to determine whether the intervention didn’t target the problem correctly or whether people’s ability to adhere to the intervention needed to be addressed.
Guarding Professional Credibility
The pace of new publications and headlines today makes it unlikely that anyone will read all the research relevant to a particular nutrition topic. However, it’s important to consider the above questions before giving credence to a study. Once you’ve evaluated a study, use the following guidelines to share information (including studies and any other sources) responsibly and avoid detracting from your credibility:
- If you haven’t had a chance to thoughtfully read a study—not just its abstract—don’t cite it as evidence.
- To respond to patients’ questions, develop a list of go-to sources you trust to provide insights on studies and put them into context of research in your areas of professional practice.
- Base advice on recommendations and reports by experts looking at the big picture of research, not on single studies.
- “Click bait” headlines with surprising or contrary statements are popular in both social and traditional media but are a poor strategy for accurate communication. Although the intent may be to encourage people to read the full story or share it, in today’s busy world many people read about nutrition by only scanning headlines. If you think a study is preliminary, say so up front. And if the study is simply a distraction from good information, then why share it at all?
In a university setting, dietitians don’t need to remind people that nutrition is a science. But in the outside world, consumers can perceive nutrition as opinion and assume the loudest voices are correct. As dietitians, we need to combine our understanding of science with culinary, behavior change, and communication skills to help people exit the cloud of media confusion and develop eating patterns that are delicious and support good health.
— Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND, is a consultant who focuses on nutrition in the intersection of cancer prevention and heart and metabolic health, and serves as nutrition advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Visit Karen’s blog, Smart Bytes, at https://karencollinsnutrition.com/smartbytes-karen-collins-nutrition.