September 26, 2012 • Sports Medicine

Differentiating between junk and useful research

Be prepared to answer your athletes’ questions about the latest nutrition fads

Miracle supplement or snake oil?

A revolutionary new eating plan or a fad diet?

Thanks to the internet, finding accurate sports nutrition information should be easier than ever. But for coaches and student-athletes alike, separating “the helpful from the hype” is often an overwhelming and frustrating process. Bombarded by nutrition and health messages everywhere — TV, magazines, books, the web, health and fitness professionals, friends and family members, elite athletes and accomplished coaches — it’s no wonder we get confused.

Happily, with practice (and a healthy dose of skepticism) you can learn to better understand and interpret food, fitness and health-related scientific news. Take the time and make the effort. Otherwise, you may compromise the health and performances of your athletes by recommending a harmful supplement or perpetuating erroneous nutrition advice.

Taking the bait

So why do so many smart people fall victim to extreme diets and unfound supplements promising more than they deliver? Obviously, harming one’s self or one’s performance is not the intention when we jump on the latest nutrition bandwagon.

It’s typical to rationalize, for example, that taking supplements compensates for a less than ideal diet or lifestyle. Perhaps you believe your athletes have special nutrient needs resulting from strenuous exercise, or you’re hoping to give them a competitive edge. Whatever the case, you’re not the first coach to be swayed by scientific jargon or complicated-sounding pseudoscience.

For centuries, athletes, and those who work with them, have attempted to boost sports performances by eating just the right foods or taking dietary supplements.

Understanding the scientific process

To a large degree, the problem lies in a lack of understanding of how science really works. If you’re a non-scientist, the researchers probably frustrate you. They seem to present contradictory studies almost daily about performance-enhancing supplements or the best diet or training program to follow. Take a closer look and you may be surprised to find that the media is the real culprit.

The media functions today as a prime gatekeeper of food, health and fitness information. It thrives on delivering “breaking news,” such as the latest research or the results of a single new study. Presented as factual and definitive — as “the final word” — this information typically makes for great headlines and attracts our attention. Oftentimes, however, reporters fail to provide the proper context for the information or they rely on news releases and study abstracts. While helpful for “previewing” research, releases and abstracts are not substitutes for original research. They don’t provide enough information to make judgments about the merits of the study, or for accurately reporting the results.

The scientific process is actually a long road of discovery. And it’s not necessarily a straight “road” at that. Researchers explore in different directions, causing the “road” to twist, turn and possibly even double back or come to a dead end before the facts are uncovered.

In the scientific world, almost no one gets to have the final word and it’s extremely rare when a single study provides a final, complete answer. New research studies published in scientific journals (and subsequently picked up by the media) are really discussions among scientists.

They’re meant to generate discussion and debate, which helps to confirm or contradict the results, add to the body of current knowledge on a subject and help shape future research. Due to new information or technology, scientists may even revisit old, accepted research results and see them in a new light.

Making sense of it all

Scientific research explores the unknown and the uncertain. Certainties only emerge through repeated research and analyses. To keep from being confused or frustrated, use the following tips to maneuver through the news about food, fitness and health.

1. Be an educated consumer. Reserve judgment about the latest “miracle food” or promising supplement until you put it into context. This means finding out how this latest news or research fits with what is already known on the subject. Does it confirm previous findings, or is it a radical departure from current thinking?

Check with reputable sources that provide a balanced perspective, not just one side of the story. In other words, choose sources (e.g., websites, journals, newscasts) and experts who reveal pros and cons, benefits and risks, beliefs/opinions and known facts.

2. Learn to distinguish observational research from controlled experiments. An observational study is just that–it observes what people do. The purpose is to investigate relationships between these factors and aspects of health or illness or performance. For example, an observational study may focus on healthy male football players ages 20 to 25 who take “supplement X” and its relationship to their performances.

From a scientific viewpoint, observational research only suggests relationships. It cannot determine cause and effect. In other words, we may be able to say, at best, that taking “supplement X” appears to be related or correlated with better game day performances.

Only controlled experiments, however, determine cause and effect. Study subjects are selected according to particular characteristics and then randomly assigned to either a control group or an experimental group. This random assignment is key as it helps ensure variables that may affect the outcome of the study are distributed equally among the groups.

In our case, male football players ages 20 to 25 are selected and then randomly assigned to one of two groups; half are given “supplement X” and half serve as the control group (they are given a sugar pill or fake treatment, called a placebo). The football players themselves would be “blind,” in other words, not told which group they have been assigned.

To further strengthen the study, the researcher doesn’t know which group is getting what until all the data had been gathered and analyzed, thus eliminating (as much as possible) researcher bias. This gold standard in research is called a double blind, placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial. Unfortunately, these types of trials are expensive and aren’t always possible. In our scenario, if the best male football players turn out to have taken “supplement X,” we can more confidently claim that their outstanding performances (the effect) can be attributed to taking “supplement X” (the cause).

Controlled experiments still can be fraught with errors, however, thus the need to let other scientific experts review the study design and results to spot such flaws. (This is referred to as the peer review process and it’s a cornerstone of all credible scientific resources.) In addition, as one study rarely delivers the “final word” on a subject, the current findings still must be verified and replicated by other researchers.

3. Be aware of the placebo effect. People often experience a placebo effect or psychological lift when they take a new supplement or begin a new activity. This mental boost alone often appears to be enough to heal an injury or power someone to a better performance. Researchers believe this placebo effect helps explain the multitude of testimonials by athletes who swear by the benefits of products when little or no scientific proof exists.

4. Keep any purported benefits and gains in perspective. Improvements attributed to special diets, foods or supplements may be purely coincidental. A person simply could be in a period of natural improvement due to other factors, such as training or better mental preparation. Perhaps they’re excelling in spite of what supplements they take or foods they choose to eat.

As the supplement industry is largely unregulated, proceed with care. Supplements do not have to undergo rigorous testing for safety and efficacy as drugs and food additives do, nor do they need to be manufactured according to any standards. Many over-the-counter supplements, including herbals, can produce positive drug-test results. The bottom line–d: Do your homework and keep a healthy dose of skepticism handy.

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