Just because “they” say it, doesn’t make it true: why I don’t always embrace the latest research

research-studies_000This week a post showed up that showed how the same data could show that running is good for you and that too much of it may shorten your life. Here. The author, Alex Hutchinson, points to a study making the rounds in the media. It says that even 5 minutes of running a day can reduce the risk of cardio-vascular disease-related death.

Two years ago, the same data-set was presented with a very different message: “that running more than about 20 miles a week would actually negate any health benefits associated with running.”

Here’s my question: how many people would change their behavior based on the media reports of this study? And if anyone would, are there good grounds for doing so?

I’m all for science.  I’m an academic, after all, so research matters to me.  But today I need a lot more than one study before I’m going to change a single thing about what I do.

I wasn’t always this way. My saddest story is about the time, as a graduate student, I actually stopped swimming because I read in Shape magazine that it created a layer of fat.  Readers of the blog will know that I love swimming.  But I didn’t really have a smart sense then of how to respond to the latest findings about things.

The fact is, one study does not a solid finding make.  So when I read anything these days about how this or that will lengthen your life or shorten your life, I’m just not all that moved.  I need to know that there is a large body of solid evidence behind the claim. Multiple studies published in reputable journals.

For example, I’m totally sold on the negative health impact of smoking.

I saw a thing this week that captured well the consequences of slavishly following the latest trends and recommendations. It’s called “Ten Steps to Eating Perfectly: The path to starvation.” It’s short enough to reprint here:

They said that fast food executives were turning fat profits by making us fat, so I stopped eating fast food.

They said that killing animals was wrong, so I became a vegetarian.

They said that fertilizer run-off from industrial farming is killing the Gulf of Mexico, the pesticides are killing honeybees, so I started only eating organic.

They said that shipped food is too carbon intensive and not as fresh, so I started eating only local, in-season food.

They said that it was wrong to punish a cow by milking it twice a day, or to steal a chicken’s eggs, so I became a vegan.

They said that the paleo diet would restore my body and make my teeth healthy, so I stopped eating anything cultivated.

They said that cooking food destroys its nutrients, so I starting eating only raw food.

They said that following a macrobiotic regimen would prevent cancer, so I followed it.

They said that I should follow a zero-waste diet, so I stopped buying anything with packaging.

And when I showed up at the farmers market in December with my reusable bag looking for local, certified-organic, vegan, unprocessed, uncooked, uncultivated, whole foods, without packaging, that would fit into my macrobiotic diet, I realized that the best thing for the planet, the animals, and my health would be to just stop eating altogether.

What I like about this is that it shows what can happen if we follow everything “they” say.

This week, the nutrition program I’m doing (that I’ve decided to stop naming because I feel as if they get enough publicity) is asking us to experiment for one day with the Paleo diet.  I’m experiencing serious resistance to this experiment. Why? Because I think of Paleo as a fad diet, just another spin on high protein low carb. And also, almost all of my vegan protein sources other than nuts and seeds are off limits.  And finally, from what I’ve read, the science just doesn’t measure up.

So why experiment with an approach to eating that I know I will never adopt? Just because “they” say it’s a great way to eat?

I’m not a scientist, so at some level I do have to rely on the expertise of others.  Over the years I have learned to be cautious about embracing the latest reports and following the trends.  I’m not a big fan of doing things because “they” say I should be doing them.

What about you? How do you respond to news reports about eating, health, and fitness that might suggest you’re not doing something you should be or you are doing something that you should avoid?

13 thoughts on “Just because “they” say it, doesn’t make it true: why I don’t always embrace the latest research

  1. I view all media-induced fads with a LARGE grain of salt. You make a good point about the same data set being used to prove two different things. There’s research on one hand, and on the other there are many opportunistic people looking to skew results to sell something, whether it’s a product or their own prominence/fame. I’m a big believer in self-experimentation, and seeing how diet or other lifestyle factors affect ME. Of course, some things won’t be provable until the autopsy, but in the meantime I can assess how I feel, what my energy is like, whether I’m sleeping well, other indicators like blood pressure or resting heart rate or dental health, etc.

    The thing about the primal diet (I am a quasi-adherent, meaning I’m not dogmatic and don’t feel the need to adopt a commercially popular version of it) is that the “diet” itself is the least significant aspect of the entire paleo/primal lifestyle. Some of the discussions about “why do we do things this way?” have led me to experiment with a number of changes, such as sleeping on a hard(er) surface, going barefoot when possible, getting daily sunshine exposure, not washing my hair with commercial shampoo, going without deodorant*, etc. Some of these were highly successful and I still incorporate them. Others, not so much (for me; your results may vary). So I think it’s worth reiterating that the “primal thing” is NOT merely a diet. That’s the only part that gets any media attention, because that’s the part that’s easiest to monetize. I recommend to anyone that if you want to get the real benefits, look further than the food. Anthony Coppola’s Humans Are Not Broken podcast/blog is an excellent resource.

    *This is the thing that sounds most shocking to other people. Surprisingly, I discovered that after a week without commercial deodorant, my sweat has no odor at all. As long as I’m clean, bathing regularly, there’s no smell.

    1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – each individual has to work with what works for them. What works for one person may (or may not) work for another. We are unique, not one size fits all or one size fits most.

      I also agree with what you pointed out about Paleo/primal lifestyle. The part that makes the money (aka the diet) is what’s getting more media coverage. But that there are people who are living a primal lifestyle, testing how their bodies respond, and it’s more than just the food they eat. I am very intrigued by your discovery about your sweat. I stopped using certain deodorants and antiperspirants years ago due to the chemicals used to make them. I tend to go with something natural, but now I’m wondering if I should try your experiment.

      1. When I stopped using deodorant, I switched to a dusting of baking soda, which absorbs odors. It works very well, but I do find it irritates my skin. Most of the time now I skip it all together. If I’m bathing daily, it’s no problem.

        I wasn’t so successful with giving up shampoo. I gave it a good try, but found that no matter what alternative methods I tried, my hair looked stringy and dried out at the same time. Going “poo-free” probably works very well for people who have thick or curly hair. However I did discover through my experiments that I don’t need to shampoo as often as I used to (daily). I can keep my hair clean for several days just by massaging my scalp under warm water in the shower.

  2. I tend to adhere to the Grain of Salt method with reports of research in the media because it tends to be skewed in favor of the corporation/group behind the scenes holding the purse strings. I wasn’t always this way – I was easily swayed by fads for many years. But now that I’m older and definitely wise, I like to think I’m listening to my body and giving my body what it needs, instead of trying to follow whatever fitness fad or fad diet comes along.

  3. “How do you respond to news reports about eating, health, and fitness that might suggest you’re not doing something you should be or you are doing something that you should avoid?”

    First I feel skeptical, and try to ignore it.

    Then I feel inwardly guilty, because I’m not doing *that thing* and if I did *that thing* maybe I’d be thinner/a better lifter.

    Then I hate myself for not being thinner/a better lifter.

    Then I consider doing *that thing*.

    Then I realise that doing *that thing* would be stupid, because my boyfriend does most of the cooking & I’m not going to force *him* to change what he cooks & eats because of something *I* read in a paper.

    Then I remember that cooking & eating my boyfriend’s delicious food is a key part of why I moved in with him and why living with him is great.

  4. The funniest people are the ones that so aggressively voice their current beliefs only to change their beliefs every year or so, and then aggressively voice their new current beliefs! I have no real answers to these things because I too am no scientist and so need to rely on others to some degree. So like you, I listen, read, jump to no conclusions, ask alot of questions, and do the best I can.

  5. Reports in popular media of scientific studies are almost always sensationalized and useless in and of themselves. Their one value I have found is in pointing the way to source documents. If I can find the actual scientific reports of a study/studies (and they’re not behind a paywall) I read them to assess their validity. Questions I ask are:

    1. How large was the sample size? Have the experimental results been reproduced? — If multiple experiments and/or at least one with a sample size > 1000 point to the same conclusion, I’ll keep reading. If the report lists only one study with a sample size of 10, I don’t waste my time.

    2. What was the demographic of the sample? Do I belong to that demographic? — Unfortunately, many studies are still carried out utilizing male subjects only. This does not necessarily invalidate the results, but it does require that I dig a little deeper and consider if the results of the study might be mediated in some way by male-typical hormones and/or social influences specific to men.

    Health & fitness-related studies also often control for specific lifestyle factors such as previous activity levels and diets. “Previous non-exerciser” does not apply to me.

    Sometimes demographic considerations can be very specific. For example: as a runner who has had some issues with injuries in recent years, I became interested in research into barefoot running, running in “minimalist” footwear, and claims that these approaches could lessen one’s incidence of injuries. Turns out the major claim to the injury-proofing benefits of minimalist/barefoot running is that barefoot runners naturally strike the ground with their forefoot first–a gait which our species has adapted to over many generations–whereas built-up running shoes tend to force people into an unnatural heel-striking gait. But I strike forefoot first when wearing a built-up shoe. The purported benefit of barefoot running would not apply to me, but the major risks still would. So I opted not to try this approach.

    3. Was the experiment double-blind? — Often the double blind standard cannot be met in health & fitness studies, but when it’s not being met one has to be especially diligent in looking for potential bias in interpretation of results.

    4. Was the experiment properly controlled? — Popular news media report a lot of studies which are just downright sloppy. If a study’s authors do not properly control for potential causal factors not under examination, the results of the study aren’t likely to point to any meaningful conclusions.

    Also: I read the actual conclusions made by a study’s authors. Sometimes the study itself is quite good but popular media coverage of it is sloppy and outright inaccurate.

    1. Fascinating. I do not have the skills or the background to review the scientific literature or the studies as you call them in the way that you do. As a lawyer by profession who has read newspaper articles about the law and legal matters, however, I know perfectly well just how poor the media’s understanding of matters way outside their areas of expertise can be!

  6. I saw a similar article yesterday (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/30/running-just-5-minutes-a-day-has-long-lasting-benefits/) In it was this quote “But “there’s not necessarily something magical about running, per se,” Dr. Church said. Instead, it’s likely that exercise intensity is the key to improving longevity, he said.” So my takeaway? Getting some intense exercise is probably good for you. Not really a shocker there.

    I agree with you on looking at new findings with a grain of salt though. In fact, I have considered taking some college level courses on nutrition, but it seems like so much changes so fast, that no matter what they taught, it would be out of date by the time I read it. That holds me back from taking them.

  7. I like to seek out information on my own instead of waiting for it to come to me most of the time. I especially love watching documentaries (which I know are totally bias) and then following up on the “research” or theories that I find there. For me food is fuel, so I’m always trying to do what I find is best for me at each stage of life. I think it’s all a guessing game in the end. Really people survived based on where they lived for many years, but now that we don’t live where we grew up or where our ancestors did and we don’t live like them or raise/grow our own food, there’s no knowing truly what is best for EVERYONE.

  8. If there is a long term chemical added and enough studies, then I try to avoid the ingredient ie. Aspartame. But no, I’m not perfect or overzealous.

    I could never be vegetarian nor vegan. It’s just too inflexible when one travels world-wide to experience other cultures. However I do eat lean meat and seafood…several times per month.

    I’ve never followed a particular “diet”. The only concession is reading about the Okinawan diet/lifestyle….a long term study of elders there who live long. Maybe not the younger generation. I wanted to see how different their diet was from my parents’ traditional peasant-rooted Chinese cooking style.

    I actually don’t eat much salads nor raw veggies. Maybe 2-3 times per month. It’s my partner who makes the salads It’s all lightly cooked…remember traditional Chinese cooking does not have much raw veggies. I suspect it’s related to water safety.

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