Dazed and Confused: Making Sense of Conflicting Health Studies


I consider myself to be a “science guy.” I often educate people on what they can do to improve their health, and I want my recommendations grounded in truthful science. As much as possible, I’d like definitive proof that what I’m advocating works, and that I’m “doing no harm.” Shouldn’t be too much to ask, right? Not so fast…

Don’t get me wrong, one of the great things about being in the health and wellness field is the fact that researchers continue to do research, and lots of it.

There’s a Flip Side

What frequently happens is that we get conflicting evidence about a particular topic, and this has the unintended consequence of making you, the already confused consumers, downright mystified as to what you should do?

Should I eat soy?

Are eggs going to raise my cholesterol?

Do I need to stretch before my workout?

Are vitamin supplements needed?

All of these issues have been hotly debated for years, with some studies supporting one contention and other studies supporting the exact opposite. Frankly, it gets annoying.

So why does this happen?

Honestly, it happens for a wide variety of reasons, but here are a couple things to consider…

  • Science is continually evolving. Or let me put it to you this way: we simply learn new stuff. Unfortunately, new information can, and often does, fly in the face of what is currently known. Remember, reliability and validity of scientific claims takes time, people.
  • One study doesn’t really mean all that much. And in many instances, there simply aren’t enough studies to make a definitive case one way or another.
  • Many of the studies that garner the most attention in the news are the first to explain a particular finding and, though this can be exciting, these early studies are usually the most unreliable.
  • Many research studies involving health and disease are epidemiologic in nature, which means that the scientists are looking at large groups of people over long periods of time. These types of studies are identifying trends, and just because A is associated with B doesn’t necessarily mean that A caused B.
  • Scientists themselves often misinterpret or exaggerate their findings. When researchers throw ethics out the window, providing reliable and substantiated recommendations to clients becomes even more difficult.

What does this mean for you?

The trend of confusing research is unlikely to yield, so here are a few tips to help you sift through the scientific mess.

Look at the ALL of the available evidence.
In other words, what does most of the established research say about a particular topic? If you are unsure, ask a trusted expert like your physician, a personal trainer, or a registered dietitian.

Do your homework.
Consider the source of the research, how the study was funded, and where it was published. Remember, well-respected, peer-reviewed scientific journals are the gold standard, not some guy’s random website.

Don’t forget to use common sense.
If one study finds an association between drinking soda and living longer (good luck finding it), that doesn’t mean you need to hit the 7-Eleven for a 12-pack.

Try to avoid the extremes.
I would argue that very few things are black and white or all or nothing. If someone tries to paint something in this manner, it’s wise to be skeptical.

Have you seen any confusing health and wellness information lately?

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