“Want to lose weight? Here’s what scientists think you should do!” In the last year alone, you’ve no doubt read numerous headlines to this effect, perhaps including:
- To Lose Weight, Eating Less Is Far More Important Than Exercising More (The New York Times, June 15, 2015)
- Weight Loss or Not, Exercise Yields Benefits (Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2015)
- How Americans Can Lose a lot of Weight without Giving Up a Single Calorie (Washington Post, July 27, 2015)
With so many health claims making the news, how should we figure out whom or what to believe?
1. Follow the money: Who is funding the research?
Recently a group of well-known researchers involved in the Global Balance Energy Network (an obesity prevention and treatment organization) announced that people trying to lose weight or prevent weight gain should focus their attention on exercising more, and spend less effort trying to eat less. Many well-regarded nutrition and obesity researchers took issue with this suggestion. The problem? The Global Balance Energy Network receives significant funding from Coca Cola, a company that has a strong incentive to discourage consumers from cutting back on their calories, especially since sugar-sweetened beverages (like the ones they sell) have come under attack for being calorie-laden and nutrient-deficient products. These researchers posed the question: “Can we really trust what Coca Cola has to say about weight loss?”
Funding sources matter for all kinds of research. For example, if a pharmaceutical company funds a study to test their medication’s efficacy, they are much more likely to find that the medication they’ve developed is helpful than if the same medication is tested by a non-biased third party.
Looking into the groups, institutes or companies who are supporting research can help you to identify potential conflicts of interest which can lead to suboptimal research design or biased data analysis and reporting of results. Government funding sources or funding from academic institutions, like universities, are examples of funding sources that may be less likely to encourage biased results.
2. Check those credentials: Is that article offering nutrition advice actually written by a nutritionist or another qualified healthcare professional? Did the author interview healthcare professionals who have a background in the topic at hand?
While having a degree or specialized training does not guarantee expertise, it certainly lends credibility. At the same time, having a fancy-looking set of letters after a name is not sufficient. An article about eating disorders that cites a person with a PhD in clinical psychology as an expert is likely more credible than one citing a person with a PhD in mathematics.
If the author of the article you’re reading is a non-specialist, inclusion of multiple sources, potentially with conflicting opinions, can signal good reporting.
3. Sometimes a broken record can be music to the ears: News is news because it’s new!
News outlets are more likely to publish splashy, exciting, unexpected science findings than reporting for the umpteenth time that flossing your teeth regularly can help prevent cavities. Unfortunately, it turns out that a lot of exciting new findings from research studies can’t be reproduced. If you’re unsure about whether to put much stock in the health advice an article is giving you, check to see if researchers at other institutions (and in other countries) have presented similar results or if the current findings make sense in the context of what is already known about a topic.
Scientists tend to have a measured response to splashy results. Simply put, if the results of a new study seem too good to be true, they might just well be.
In conversation with other researchers, scientists develop a set of “next questions” that, if answered, would help them feel more confident in their findings. As an educated news consumer, consider taking a similar approach. Confer with others about what you’ve read and see if you can generate ideas of what else you’d like to know to feel really confident in what you’ve learned.