Scientific research can be confusing and misinterpreted if not carefully examined with an informed and open mind. Heather Huntsman, Ph.D., CSCS explains how to be your own detective when reviewing research and how best to extrapolate exercise and nutrition findings to benefit your health.
You are a smart person. So why is it difficult to read a research article and understand what you should be doing to lose weight, become more fit, get healthier, or even just feel better?
There are two main issues at play: expectations and communication.
First of all, many of us were taught about science in similar way. We were all taught that science is about facts, that it is unbiased, and that all of the answers to the test were in the book or covered in lecture material. In reality, science aspires to come closer to the truth which still may leave some gaps to fill. Scientific studies are designed to be controlled, thorough, and extremely detailed. While this is a strength, this is at the heart of what makes science so painstakingly slow, and why studies are only ever a very small piece of a much bigger picture.
Exercise and nutrition sciences are relatively new fields in the grand scheme of modern science. The field has not been around long enough to understand as many of the details as more established fields like chemistry or physics. Also, while science is progressing through research, rarely do the results from a single study provide enough information to form a strong conclusion about an important topic. Research cannot represent the complexities and uniqueness of every person, especially in how the body responds to exercise and the food we consume.
This does not mean, however, that solid clues to provide answers do not exist, only that things are rarely as black and white as we want them to be. The truth is that science often tells us the best we know now, which is why studies often present findings in probabilities, and by noting: “data suggest x or y.” Research results may change a bit over time as we learn more and data accumulate on a subject. So, you are not alone in your confusion, you just need to reframe it.
Secondly, and equally as important, the way scientists and the media try to communicate results can cause further confusion. It is easy to fall into the trap of wanting to find a quick fix for our diet that we can over simplify, over reach, or even twist the facts to fit what we want to hear. Misconceptions around scientific research results may be a product of poor communication or the media trying to sensationalize results to gain reader attention. Regardless of the cause, we must be our own detectives and be smart about how we consume research findings and media coverage of scientific studies.
Developing skills to read research appropriately will help you have a better understanding of the science. First, identify the population being studied. Is the study looking at animals or humans, males or females, young or old, normal weight or overweight? All of this matters. Why? Because the study population limits how and to whom the results can be extrapolated.
Second, take note of what type of study you are reading. Some research designs are considered more clinically significant than others. For example, a meta-analysis or systemic review are designed to review and summarize existing research to form broad trends in data. In comparison, a randomized controlled trial is designed more closely to a classic scientific experiment where groups are assigned a condition and results are compared at a high standard of statistical significance.
Also, know that one study’s findings do not make the data fact. Results are often determined through computations in biostatistics, meaning they are based on probability. Results that are labeled “significant” still may have a .01% of not occurring. Scientific understanding comes from years of researching a topic. Answers take time, they take many studies, and they require looking at questions from more than one angle.
Finally, be a smart media consumer. Headlines can often over-sensationalize research findings for shock value, which can misinterpret actual research results or fail to include important factors such as research population, confounding variables or biased funding sources. Instead of using untrusted media outlets to explain studies, look to the studies themselves.
What does this mean for you and your health journey? It means that there are answers, but they take time and you have to follow the evidence over multiple studies to get a better understanding of the truth. Keep following a topic and be willing to ask questions and think critically if you read about data that are contrary to your original understanding. By shifting your expectations from black and white answers to a growing understanding, your frustration will decrease and you will realize how much we all still have to learn.