Why You Should Beware Of "Health Study" Articles

by Brandon Topp

Echo chambers around the Internet have turned headlines into a wild west of exaggerations and misinformation, which can be especially problematic when it comes to exciting new health news -- but even established sourced sometimes fall into this trap. For example, this recent study from The British Journal of Sports Medicine, found to be wildly biased, claims that eating excessive saturated fat doesn’t lead to heart disease. 

The controversial study inspired countless reports celebrating the news, and of course, ultimately spreading unhealthy ideas. The whole unraveling story inspired a lesson: Be wary of too-good-to-be-true headlines, and read breaking studies smarter (we've got five tips on how to do that below!). 

After all, forming healthy eating habits and "flipping" traditionally unhealthy meals into more nutritious offerings are what our shows like Flip My Food  are all about, and we feel passionately about spreading informative health information. Find out when to watch Flip My Food and where you can tune in. 

Here's How The British Journal Of Sports Medicine Made Untrustworthy Claims:

The study cites no new data or evidence to claim that saturated fats don’t clog arteries; instead, it relies fully on data from a database of former studies that’s too large to sum up quickly. This piece from Science Alert explains this issue well by writing, “Observational studies are not really the most reliable type of evidence, as they don’t establish causation, and it’s hard to weed out possible bias.” 

The same article quotes chief medical advisor of Australia’s National Heart Foundation criticising the study saying, “There are a number of poor and discredited studies quoted to support the arguments presented and confusion between high total fat in the diet and high saturated fats.” 

Lastly, one of the study’s lead authors was cardiologist Aseem Malhotra, who has a history of publishing pro-fat studies without much fact-based information to back them up. Last year, he co-authored a report for Britain’s National Obesity Forum that claimed full-fat dairy foods like milk, yogurt, and cheese can protect the heart, and won’t contribute to coronary disease. After being rejected by most of the scientific community, four of the forum's campaigners had to resign. 

Also on Z Living: How To Keep Your Heart Ultra Healthy

The Real Damage Of Studies Like This Comes In The Follow-Ups. 

Much like with Malhotra’s last fat-is-good-for-you campaign, this story sparked a number of follow up stories with headlines that include inadvisable messaging. Just check out some of catchy story titles below, each with a strong messages about diet changes.

Eat Up! Eggs, Steak, Butter NOT Bad For Heart, Docs Say - CBN
Potato Chips Are The New Health Food - New Food Economy
Red Meat Green Light: More Options For Eating Safe - NY Daily News

In an age where sources and reputable publications are far less influential than a clickable copy and social media shares, headlines like these can actually affect what people eat. Even the New Food Economy article admits that potato chips are probably not a viable new health food, but the affirmation comes at the end of the article, a place where fewer and fewer contemporary readers actually end up making it to. 

Also on Z Living: RECIPE: You’ll Savor The ‘50 Shades Of Green’ Smoothie From Julie Daniluk Of ‘Healthy Gourmet’ 

And This Isn’t The Only Misleading Health Article From Recent News.

This aturated-fats fiasco isn't an isolated incident either. Stories and trends with misleading information are published all the time. Recently Time took a second look at the craze of coconut oil and its many supposed health benefits. The piece pointed to research from Marie-Pierre St-Onge, associate professor of nutritional medicine at Cornell University Medical School, which basically said that large amounts of designer coconut oil can help metabolism.

This research helped make coconut oil a huge health fad, even though store-bought coconut oil contains only 15% of the triglycerides in  the designer oil from St-Onge’s research. Now, this research accidentally sparked a health movement. The European Journal of Medicine recently said that coconut oil does not increase metabolism. 

Also on Z Living: This “Intense” Exercise Technique Could Add Years To Your Life

So, How Do We Know What To Believe?

To help you navigate the aggressive and imaginative world of health news, here are five short tips on vetting the articles you read: 

  1. Be wary of “observational studies.”
  2. Look at the size of the study. A good rule of thumb: The smaller the sample size, the less telling.
  3. Actually read the article, as headlines are created to mislead.
  4. Research your sources. Double-check controversial figures like Malhotra.
  5. Stick to the basics. If you’re unsure, keep safe by exercising, eating vegetables, and sleeping regularly. 

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