Information Overload — Cutting Through the Health Research Clutter

By Laura High @healthwriter61
May 22, 2015

How can the average consumer make sense of what’s often conflicting health information?

One study says too little salt is bad for you. Another says too much salt is bad for you. Eggs were bad. Then they weren’t. Milk was good. Now it’s not. How does the average food consumer make sense of the noise and do what’s best for them?

“This is a challenging time with the Internet because people can get news very quickly,” said Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, clinical associate professor at Boston University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But as we all know, just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t make it true. It’s up to each of us to be smart consumers of news.

But the conclusions of a lot of studies, even if they are based on sound research, often conflict. What’s more, there’s now evidence that many published research findings are false, exaggerated, or highly biased.

So how do we find information we can trust that supports our health? Blake recommends relying on information from a group of experts.

“When you have one study coming out saying that it does blank, you’ve got to keep in mind that this is just one study at this moment in time. Let’s wait until a whole consensus comes out to decide what to do,” she said.

A good example is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Every five years the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, made up of medical doctors, nutritionists, and academicians, reviews the latest scientific and medical literature and prepares a report providing evidence-based recommendations for the new guidelines. The recommendations are presented to the secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who then jointly publish the update.

“When you have a consensus from a committee . . . they look at a whole volume of research, sorting out which studies were good, which were maybe not as good, which evidence can we really count, and then making sense of it,” Blake said. “They’ll round it up, they’ll give you the latest finding, and then they’ll recommend what changes to make based on the latest science.”

Markers of good research

If you do read an article or blog offering health or medical advice, there are questions you can ask to determine whether it’s valid and based on good science. What are the qualifications of the author? Is he or she a doctor or nutritionist? If not, has the information been reviewed by an expert? Is the information based on a study? If so, how many people took part? How long did it last? Small numbers and short durations are less likely to produce truly significant results.

Blake has two recommendations for evaluating research. First, ask yourself whether the information is relevant to you — was the study done on men or women or people in your age group? Then, look for articles that not only present the results, but also have an expert weigh in on how to interpret them and discuss what it really means and for whom.

In the field of nutrition research, Blake said the trend now is not so much to study a particular nutrient or food, but to look at the total diet. She said this approach is proving to be very effective.

“I think the really interesting thing is that nutrition is here to stay and more and more research is being done on it because it’s such a powerful weapon in fighting heart disease, cancer, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, which are four of the leading causes of death in Americans. So it plays a big factor. We’re going to have more of it,” she said.

Talk to a professional

If you have a condition and you’re wondering whether a new drug or results from new research may be helpful to you, start by talking to your doctor.

“You never want to make any change in your lifestyle unless you talk to your healthcare provider,” Blake said. Recommendations should take into account things like your medical history, your personal history, your family history, and medications you take.

Blake also recommends seeing a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) “just to find out based on my medical history, my personal history, what should I be changing in my diet to make me healthy? What would be good for me?”

She said the resulting recommendations will be tailored specifically for your individual needs. And most insurance companies will pay for it, especially if you have a condition such as obesity, high blood pressure, or diabetes.

“So often times it’s just a co-pay away,” Blake said.

Food can be medicine

There was a time when if you went to your physician with an ailment you’d likely leave with a prescription. Rarely was “What is your diet like?” asked. That’s changing. More and more, food is viewed as medicine, and sometimes poison.

Food is now a significant part of the mix in prevention and management of diseases such as diabetes and high cholesterol, Blake said.

“So there’s no question that this is a major player in how to stay healthy and prevent certain diseases that plague Americans. And that’s really going back to what I just said about the dietitian, where that person is trained to do this,” she said. “For some reason people think ‘Well it’s just food so it can’t be dangerous.’ Well it can be dangerous. If you’re on certain medications and you start taking supplements that could be not healthy,” she said.

Just as you’d likely see a physical therapist to recover from a knee injury, if you have health issues related to your diet it makes sense to see an RDN.

“It’s almost the same thing. You’re overweight, you’ve got type 2 diabetes, your blood glucose is out of control — go to a dietitian and let’s get this figured out,” she said.


April 06, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN