October 19, 2015 • Sports Medicine

Nutritional Value: Beware of junk science

chocolateExcellent news: Chocolate can help people lose weight. As reported last May by major worldwide news outlets, a team of German researchers discovered that people on a low-carb diet lost weight 10 percent faster if they ate a chocolate bar every day. Published in the International Archives of Medicine journal, the scientific study revealed that including chocolate also helped to lower cholesterol and improve sleep. At last, the dream diet that millions had been waiting for was confirmed.

Well, not quite.

While the above scenario is true, it was pulled off by a science journalist collaborating with two German reporters working on a documentary film about the junk-science diet industry. They wanted to show just how easy it is to turn bad science into the big headlines behind fad diets. Actual human subjects were recruited (15 participated) and an actual clinical trial was run, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. The statistically significant benefits of chocolate that were reported were based on the actual data. That would be the hook for the media, and it’s a big problem.

A well-kept science secret is that studies designed to measure a large number of things (18 variables in this case) about a small number of people almost guarantee a “statistically significant” result of some sort. In other words, it’s a recipe for false positives.

The claimed breakthrough became the scientific paper, “Chocolate with high coco content as a weight-loss accelerator.” Despite numerous scientific flaws, the paper was eagerly accepted for publication within 24 hours by multiple journals. This included the International Archives of Medicine, one of a growing number of no-peer-review-required fake journal publications. As an open-access scientific journal, it’s driven by author publication fees rather than traditional subscriptions. None of the scientific research was questioned and it was published without a single word being changed. The rest is history as the media latched onto the Journal’s press release about the research paper and ran with it. Reporters, too, failed to question the poor science or even consult outside researchers or nutrition experts to verify the results.

Why do so many people fall victim to fad diets and useless supplements in the first place? Their intent, obviously, is not to harm their health or performance when jumping on the latest nutrition bandwagon. Attempting to compensate for a less-than-ideal diet and searching for a competitive edge are common motivators. Companies also are aware that the public likes it when the advice is consistent with what they already want to do.

The scientific process

To a large degree, the problem lies in the lack of understanding of how science really works. Non-scientists are often frustrated and bewildered by nutrition news. Researchers seem to present contradictory studies almost daily about foods, performance-enhancing supplements and the best weight-loss diet to follow. While scientists must remain vigilant to minimize scientific flaws in their studies, a closer look reveals the media as the true culprit.

The media functions today as one of the prime gatekeepers of food and health 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 makes for great headlines and attracts people’s 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, on the other hand, is actually a long road of discovery. And it’s not necessarily a straight route 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. Even then, these facts may only be a small part of a much larger, bewildering phenomenon. This means further research is required before answers are found.

In the scientific world, almost no one person gets to have the final word and it’s extremely rare that 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. Older, accepted research results may even be revisited and seen in a new light due to new information or technology.

Making sense of it all

Controlled experiments and clinical trials can still be fraught with errors, thus other scientific experts must be allowed to review how the studies were designed and the results obtained to spot such flaws. This is referred to as the “peer review process,” and it’s a cornerstone of all credible scientific resources. Since it’s extremely rare that one study can deliver the “final word” on a subject, current findings still must be verified and replicated by other researchers.

The bottom line when it comes to food and nutrition-related news is homework must be done and a healthy dose of skepticism kept handy. For credible information on supplements, see www.ConsumerLab.com or www.Quackwatch.com. For the latest nutrition news, visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics at www.Eatright.org.

Nutritional Value is a column that focuses on athlete health and wellness. It appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine.

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