Eat this, not that! Eat that, not this! One day a certain supplement or medication is great for you, but a week later you’re being advised not to take it…
With so much confusing (and often conflicting) information flying around, how can you become an informed consumer of health information? How can you judge the worth of media hype around health information and determine what applies to you?
The best way to become a discerning consumer of health information? By asking key questions and evaluating the information being presented. Below are eight important questions to ask yourself when faced with new health information:
1) Testimonials Only? If the sole evidence for a product is consumer testimony, without presentation of scientific evidence, it’s important to seek out additional information in order to determine if the claims are valid.
2) Breakthrough Scientific Discoveries? Dramatic breakthroughs and isolated evidence of “amazing findings” are extremely rare in science. Only when evidence is consistent across various types of studies—from lab reports to case studies to clinical trials that span a variety of populations—are we likely to have strong, reliable and valid evidence for a “breakthrough.”
3) Who’s that Scientist? When study data is reported, look at who conducted the research. Is the researcher affiliated with a university or research institution or with a company or organization that stands to profit? Reliable data does not come from “secret sources.” When reading an article, look for a link to a source; pay attention to where the article was published, by whom, and how it was funded.
4) Limited or Extensive Data? In research, results that have been replicated by different investigators—across a variety of conditions, groups of people, and over time—are much more meaningful and reliable than a single study.
5) Is there a Cause-and-Effect? Many studies first explore correlation—a relationship between two things. For example, a study finds a relationship between eating olives and headaches. But this does not mean the olives cause headaches; further research is necessary to determine cause and effect. What kind of olives? What is the nutritional profile of the olives? Could it be something in the olives? Are men and women of different ages and races equally affected? What about people who are prone to headaches? Are the olives grown in a certain place? Correlation does not prove causation.
6) Placebo or Not? A placebo is an inert (inactive) substance or treatment designed to have no physiological impact. When taking a placebo produces the same effect as a supplement or medication, it’s critical to question effectiveness. Studies of medicines must prove (in the data) that the benefits are statistically significantly better than a placebo.
7) Statistically What? For a study to reach statistical significance means there was a large enough number of participants to measure the effect of the supplement and that the effect was caused by something other than chance.
8) Who’s in the Study? If a study is done in a petri dish, or on rats, it is not always applicable to human beings. Studies involving people, if well done, give us more useful and reliable information. Try to identify the population studied. If the population is 90-year old women from Indonesia, the results are not easily generalized to 40 year-old working American women with children. You want to see that the study had a large number of diverse people in it, including people like yourself.
These questions will get you off to a good start when assessing the latest health information. Your doctor is the best person to help you determine what information applies to you.