The Tyranny Of “The Latest Study”

The Tyranny Of "The Latest Study"
The Tyranny Of

More than 20 years ago, I underwent and passed the training I needed to become an EMT-Paramedic. Then one day in Detroit, surrounded by emergency room doctors and nurses, I performed chest compressions on a toddler.

But it was too late. I couldn’t hold back my emotions when the doctor declared the baby dead. I decided at that moment that medicine wasn’t for me.

With so little medical training, I have great respect for medical professionals who excel at explaining medical studies.

But when the latest study of a specific subject clearly conflicts with earlier ones? For a layman like me, it can seem like there are no right or wrong answers.

Yesterday, for example, I wrote about Googling “coconut oil.” Leading the search results was an article entitled Top 10 Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Coconut Oil.

The author, a nutrition researcher whose bio claims that “Evidence-based nutrition is his passion,” cites about 30 articles and studies. All of them support his bottom line that “Oil derived from coconuts has a number of emerging benefits for your health.”

But after doing some more digging, I arrived at exactly the opposite conclusion: Coconut oil should not be considered a part of a healthy diet.

The coconut oil controversy experience reminded me of something I read in Building Bone Vitality. it was under the heading of Medical News Reporting: The Tyranny of “The Latest Study”:

“The news media report what’s new. Nothing wrong with that. One week the latest study shows that beer causes cancer, coffee causes heart disease, and whatever. The next week, the next study shows the opposite. Over time, instead of becoming informed, the public becomes chronically confused.” 

The book’s authors, nutrition professor Amy Joy Lanou Ph.D. and medical journalist Michael Castleman, go on to explain:

“No single study is ever definitive. What counts is the weight of the evidence across all trials.”

In other words, cherry-picking a handful of studies that appear to lend credibility to a specific product is always irresponsible and often misleading!

Weighing the Balance of the Evidence

What I appreciate most about NutritionFacts.org is its comprehensive approach to gathering researched-based evidence on the pros and cons of various nutritional claims.  More than 200 medical professionals are involved in reviewing close to 25,000 studies per year!

Their mission?

To:

  • read through every single English-language medical journal.

  • highlight all studies regarding nutrition

  • review each study against the total weight of evidence.

In their pursuit of the truth, they’re mirroring Dr. Lanou’s experience in bone health and osteoporosis research.

The evidence she found was mixed: One-third of the studies seemed to support the position that calcium from animal-based foods provides a reduction in bone-fracture risk. The remaining two-thirds said just the opposite.

But what did the balance of evidence tell her? After examining all of the studies in greater detail, she found the two-thirds position included a greater number of randomized, double-blind, controlled trials – and larger pools of participants.

The strength of those findings allowed Dr. Lanou to set aside the 1 in 3 studies supporting animal-based calcium as a bone builder in favor of those opposing it.

Dig Deeper Than Latest Study

It’s exceptionally rare for any medically researched subject to have 100 percent of the studies support a certain conclusion. Whenever possible, I recommend reading all the available studies on a given topic, but treat what you read with a bit of skepticism.

If that isn’t possible, find an unbiased source with comprehensive reviews like NutritionFacts.org.

I’m no longer a paramedic, but I am a dad — and what I decide to feed my children is critical to their lives and health. With them in mind, I’ll continue looking for nutritional information backed by the best balance of scientific evidence!

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