It is extremely tricky to be a consumer in today’s world with so much media influence. There is so much pressure and conflicting messages about health and nutrition. It used to just be newspapers, magazines and the occasional TV news coverage of a nutrition headline. Now, every other person on social media proclaims they have the answers and secrets to health. And because of that, media and research literacy is more important than ever. If you’ve ever felt confused about nutrition or health due to conflicting messages you’ve heard, you’re not alone.
Why media and research literacy matters
The whole goal of scientific research is to better understand and improve human health. Research is being done to help the public, so it’s very important for the public to be able to attain all of this information. Scientific research articles are often written using very specific terminology and jargon that can make it hard to interpret, especially if you are not studying in that specific field. This is where the media comes in and tries to disseminate information in a more understandable (although often over-glorified) way. The problem here, is that media disseminating information to the public becomes like the game “Telephone” where important details are lost and information gets misconstrued along the way. Because of this, I am a huge advocate of getting your scientific information straight from the source, straight from the research studies themselves. Not all research studies are created equal though. There are several aspects to look out for in research that should make you raise question of their validity and/or applicability to the human population.
It can be daunting dive right in and try to read scientific research, but here are a few of the top red flags to look out for.
Top 5 red flags to look for when checking out original scientific research:
Very small sample size. Sample size is defined as the number of test subjects present in a study group and it is incredibly important in all types of research studies. When you are talking about sample size, typically the bigger, the better. This is because we know that biological variation is factor that plays into all aspects of life and that individuals respond differently to treatments and interventions. When a research study has a very small sample size, you may be only capturing a sliver of the whole picture and may actually make false conclusions about your findings.
Obvious bias present in the research. The language of the research article should come off as unbiased and have an overall neutral tone. When interpreting the findings of a research study, the authors should compare and contrast their findings to what has been found already in the field. Most research topics are not clear-cut and there are often conflicting thoughts and findings that are debated. The authors should present both sides along with their evidence and discuss how it fits into the field. If you observe them ignoring all other possibilities and theories, it is likely there is significant bias present throughout the whole study.
Not published in a peer reviewed journal. Peer review is a process in which researchers submit their unpublished manuscripts to be scrutinized and evaluated by experts in the field of research. This is a step taken by scientists to add a level of further rigor to the quality of our work. While you typically won’t find a statement about peer review within individual studies, you can find information on if a journal requires peer review by searching on their home website.
Conflict of interest in funding sources. Funding sources and conflicts of interest are quick and easy things you can look for in any research study. Most journals require that the authors disclose their funding and any conflicts of interest and this is typically found at the very end of the article. My tip here is after reading the title and abstract of the paper to get a feel of what the study entails, have a peek at the funding and conflict of interest statements and ensure that they don’t seem suspicious. If a study is examining the effect of a specific nutritional supplement and the study is funded by the company that makes that supplement, that should raise a red flag and you should read the paper with a healthy dose of skepticism.
After reading, you can’t answer the question “so what does all of this mean and why does this matter?” The whole purpose of scientific research is to examine questions and topics so that we can understand and try to improve human health and wellbeing. This is the only reason in which we get funding to do our work. Therefore, researchers should be able to clearly convey the importance of the topic they are researching throughout the entire research paper. If you read a whole paper and still can’t answer this question of importance, it is likely that the researchers cannot either. This is a major red flag.
The biggest recommendation I can give you as a PhD in nutritional science is to question everything. Before you take a nutrition or health statement at face value, take some time to question it, look a little deeper and ask yourself how (or if) this affects you positively as an individual.
I know how complicated interpreting nutrition information can be—especially when it feels like all the information you’re seeing is conflicting and contradictory. If you’d like to be able to confidently navigate nutrition science and to learn more about scientific literacy, check out the Positive Nutrition 101 online course!
Post was adapted from a previous blog post on Positive Nutrition.