Nutrition in the News: How to Read Behind the Headline

The internet is full of nutrition news to catch you off guard and fill you with panic. With all the contradictory studies surfacing lately, it's no surprise that this confusion and unnecessary worry is on the rise. Jessica Stansfield, junior nutrition manager at Huel, explains how to apply critical thinking when faced with all this nutrition news.

It’s important to remember that this is nothing new. The internet and social media have only amplified the spread of misinformation that's been around for years. From newspaper articles pushing quick-fix diets to celebrities endorsing questionable trends, it's easy to get caught up in the noise.

As the saying goes, ‘don’t believe everything you hear’ (or read), so aim to read the headlines with a critical mind. As a certified nutritionist, I’m always on the lookout for picking apart research. Here are my top five tips for reading behind the headlines.

5 tips for critical thinking when reading behind the headline

Look beyond the headline before making assumptions

This tip may seem obvious but don’t be too quick to judge. Headlines become the first lens through which we perceive news stories, and it can be challenging not to take them at face value.

In a similar way to how people leave an impression with their clothes, the way a headline is crafted can shape readers' perceptions of the entire article. Try to avoid jumping to conclusions and read the whole article before forming an opinion.

Ask the question: “Where has the ‘evidence’ come from?”

Once you’ve spotted an attention-grabbing headline, take a closer look to see where the information comes from. Is it from a journalist at a news outlet or a well-researched article written by a nutrition expert? Always lean towards scientific articles with proper references over news articles with no scientific backing. Look out for researchers who hold degrees in relevant fields such as nutrition, dietetics or public health.

Credentials such as Registered Nutritionist (RNUTr) or a Registered Dietitian (RD) show their expertise in the field. For trustworthy nutrition information, look for articles published in respected scientific journals such as The British Nutrition Foundation or The American Journal of Clincal Nutrition, to name a couple.

Question the methods used

If you've never read a scientific article before, it can seem a bit overwhelming at first. Here are essential questions that can help you to figure out the reliability of the methods used.

What type of study is it?

In the world of research, there are different types of studies, each with its unique category. You've got cohort studies, randomized controlled trials, meta-analyzes, case-control studies, and more. Each type has its own strengths and limitations.

Was the study carried out on animals or humans?

Now, lots of important studies have been done on animals. While these are helpful, human studies give us the most accurate information to apply to our own health.

How large is the study?

When it comes to research, the more the merrier. A larger sample size generally means more reliable results.

Have they accounted for other factors?

Confounding variables can make things seem connected when they're not. For example, in an ice cream and sunburn study, the sunny weather might be making it look like more ice cream causes more sunburn. But it's actually just because people eat more ice cream on sunny days when they're more likely to get sunburned.

Ask the question: “Is the evidence strong?”

When diving into research, don't forget to consider the weight of the evidence – that's how all studies on a topic come together to create a bigger picture. While one study can be important, its impact gets even more powerful when other researchers back it up with similar findings. Also, remember to consider all angles and look for different viewpoints to gain a more well-rounded perspective on the headline in question.

Fact-check the article with the science

Fact-checking articles with scientific papers is important. When an article cites a study, beware of selective quoting and cherry-picked data, ensuring an accurate representation of the study's findings. Consider the headline 'red wine is good for you' as an example.

The article might miss mentioning the study's focus on moderate consumption and the potential drawbacks of excessive alcohol intake, this can affect how readers interpret the article. Fact-checking helps us to see beyond the surface and discover the whole story.

Before taking any headline as absolute truth, just be cautious, ask questions, and use a few of the above tips to make informed choices.

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