Interpreting Health Reports
Sometimes interpreting health reports can be very confusing. The following article can help you to evaluate the health information you read and form an educated opinion on its content.
Almost daily, we see the results of a new health-related research study appear in media headlines or make the rounds on the Internet. We hear so-called experts cite research to make extravagant claims or issue dire warnings about foods, products or treatments. The quality and accuracy of what we hear varies widely.
Fortunately, you don't have to be a scientist to determine whether research reports or health information are reliable. The next time you see a health report, follow these basic guidelines:
Read Beyond the Riveting Headlines: Headlines grab your attention but don't tell the whole story - so read on. A balanced article will provide more than one perspective on a controversial topic or on new research results. It should also interpret what the study results mean for the "average" person and discuss what further research is needed before health experts can draw firm conclusions.
Consider the Source: Credible research is conducted by a respected scientific or medical expert and published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, Archives of Internal Medicine, New England Journal of Medicine, or Journal of The American Dietetic Association. Before a research study is published in these journals, peers review it to determine whether it meets established standards of scientific research. Beware if an author is vague about the source of research information or cites an obscure publication that is not peer-reviewed.
Check the Context: Research results or health information that is taken out of context may not tell the whole story. Reputable journalists and researchers are careful to explain how new findings fit within the context of past research on a topic. When scientists' results contradict past research, they usually conclude that more research is needed to draw a firm conclusion. If you are research-savvy, read the study for yourself, or consult a trusted health professional such as a physician or registered dietitian to help you interpret health information.
Be Wary of Alarmists: Respected scientists do not discuss research findings in an alarmist or hysterical fashion and don't claim "proof" or "cause" until research shows that the findings are conclusive. They also don't make sweeping recommendations to change eating habits or other health-related habits based on one study or on anecdotal information.
Learn a Thing or Two About Research Design: The way a study is designed determines whether researchers can conclude cause and effect between two factors. Two common types of research designs are epidemiological studies and double-blind placebo-controlled studies.
- Epidemiological studies look at groups of people to detect associations between their diet or lifestyle and their likelihood of getting a disease. Epidemiological studies can suggest potential relationships between these factors but don't necessarily show that one factor caused the other.
- Double-blind placebo-controlled studies are often conducted to confirm or disprove the results of epidemiological research. Considered the "gold standard" of clinical research studies, this type of study produces dependable results that are free of bias. Subjects are randomly assigned to either the experimental group or the control group, and neither the researcher nor the subjects know which group is getting the test substance and which is getting a look-alike placebo. A well-designed double-blind placebo-controlled study can show cause and effect between two factors.
Look to Respected Health Authorities: When a new study conflicts with past research or you hear questionable information about a food or health issue, check in with the experts. Organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association and the Food and Drug Administration base their health and nutrition recommendations on large bodies of well-designed scientific research.
Surf for Yourself: A string of scientific references following an article or on an Internet site doesn't prove the information is accurate. The references might not support the information provided or the research may be poorly conducted. You can do an on-line search to read studies or summaries (abstracts) of studies, or to research your own health topics. An excellent on-line database for biomedical abstracts is Medline at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/PubMed. Medline includes 9 million citations from the most respected peer-reviewed medical journals.
"Complete Food and Nutrition Guide", The American Dietetic Association, 1996.
"How to Understand and Interpret Food and Health-Related Scientific Studies", International Food Information Council Foundation, 1997.