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Jun 25, 2011 08:59 PM

A thought on food "studies"

This is just my humble opinion, but it seems to me that as long as you follow the basic food guide and believe in moderation, you should be "basically" healthy. Realizing of course that there are many variables for everyone.
It seems to me that every time a new study comes out about food or a food product, everyone jumps on the bandwagon to support or deny whichever camp they lean towards. I think back to previous studies that seem to tell us one thing, then 5 years later another study comes up to support not eating that same food. It seems every 2-3 years another study is done to disprove a study done previously. Coffee is bad!! 2 years later, Coffee is good!! Chocolate is bad!! 2 years later, Chocolate is good!! This causes cancer, this hellps heal cancer. No one is to be believed, it seems.
Well guess what? Breathing is bad for your health!! Think about it. When we breathe in, we breathe in oxygen yes, but we also are breathing in pollutants from our own homes and the enviroment! Perhaps we ought to stop breathing....just a thought. This is again, my opinion, but it often makes those around me ponder.
Please be gentle with replies, I am but a humble person who quietly watches the food world with interest. :)

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  1. I'm just wishing for a study that says smoking is good for you!

    7 Replies
    1. re: escondido123

      ha, life without bacon or five more minutes on terra firma, not a hard decision!

      1. re: escondido123

        they released a study in the AMA last year which stated smoking cigarettes helps reduce your risk for thyroid cancer.

        true story.

        just saying...

        1. re: nothingswrong

          I can't seem to find that; can you supply a link reporting cause and effect?

          1. re: mcf

            yep, here you go:


            and a much more in-depth article:

            and here's one that says alcohol does the same thing!

            obviously no one's suggesting we all take up smoking, but hey. i thought it was interesting. a friend of mine who is a head and neck surgeon tipped me off to this a while back, as i've had grave's disease since i was a kid and am at high risk for thyroid cancer.

            anyway, sorry to get off topic!

            1. re: nothingswrong

              Non of those indicate nor substantiate the assertion that they "stated smoking cigarettes helps reduce your risk of cancer."
              They merely reported association, which is proof of nothing.

              1. re: mcf

                I hadn't intended my first comment to come out the way it did. I was on the phone while typing--my mistake.

                Regardless, when it comes to "proving" anything in the medical world, I take research with a grain of salt. I grew up in a large family with all adults for 2 generations employed in biomedical engineering, stem cell research, cancer research, or "everyday" medicine and maybe they've influenced this. The conversations we had over dinner often varied from what said family had published in the journals. For instance, they scoffed at many studies associating foods/medications with health risks, but were stringent about avoiding others with just as little proof. To each his own.

                I think that's the point of this thread. Most of the research on things like chocolate, coffee, certain fats, and even certain produce don't prove anything either. Soy is associated with hormone abnormalities? Cruciferous vegetables can inhibit thyroid function? A glass of red wine every day is good for the heart, but decades of this can cause liver damage? Using alcohol-based mouthwash is good for your gums (and subsequent overall health) but causes cheek/gum/tongue cancer when used daily? I think as consumers we just have to make up our own minds about most of this research.

                Back to the studies--if people think taking up smoking might just help reduce their risk of thyroid cancer, then go ahead. But I think most would realize it's a silly risk to take.

                1. re: nothingswrong

                  Often, studies establish one thing, but the authors and the news media report something else that they didn't establish. My only point is that associations show us a possibly interesting direction for additional research and inquiry, not that "cigarettes reduce" thyroid cancer risk. Anyone who thinks a statistical correlation indications clinical action is probably not up to reading or thinking much at all.

      2. Gentle? No! As in, no need. This is one of the most intelligent posts I've seen (as far as science goes) here. It's so true that we find out new things and change our opinions frequently; in other words, we really don't know anything outright. Common sense and basics like moderation still rule when it comes to food and health.


        1 Reply
        1. re: ediblover

          Thank you so much. I concur. Moderation is key in everything.

        2. The problem is not so much the studies, but in the way they get interpreted and presented to the general public. If you read the actual manuscripts as published in peer reviewed journals, researchers rarely make broad, sweeping conclusions, nor do they make recommendations for individual behavior based on their single study. Conclusions and recommendations based on individual studies generally come from parties with an interest in selling the story or the product.

          11 Replies
          1. re: mpjmph

            Good point, but if I could actually read and *understand* those studies, I wouldn't be sitting at home, I would be in a courtroom or a science lab or something like that. :)

            1. re: Godslamb

              But (serious question), if you can't understand the studies, why would you comment on them as in your original post?

              Now, replying to the original post, I think the tendency for many journalists to dumb down results of studies actually is a response to the increasing scientific/quantitative/statistical illiteracy that contemporary American and other societies seem to be imbued with. Even if science journalists do understand the study results, they have to report them in a very simplistic manner because their readers may not have the knowledge necessary to understand anything remotely complex or multifactorial. And frankly, saying that "studies say this, then they say that" is taking the easy way out.*

              That said, Godslamb, have you actually tried to read some of the original studies? We're talking nutrition/medical studies, not plasma physics phenomena. They really aren't that difficult to understand and you are probably not giving yourself enough credit for having the ability to interpret them.

              *Disclaimer--I am a scientist, though in a different field.

              1. re: nofunlatte

                Can anyone without an official degree actually understand those studies? The legal lingo and scientific terms are what I am referring to. Yes, I have seen some reports, although to say I read them all would be a lie. I am not a brilliant person, but I can get the gist of some of these reports. My main point was the fact that every year they come out with new studies that tend to contradict what was said previously.
                I apologize if I generalized, but as I claimed, I am a simple housewife who reads reports in various places (magazines, newspapers, etc) or what comes on the news, and tries to understand them.

                1. re: Godslamb

                  Yes, anyone with curiosity, and a capacity to do critical analysis can figure out whether the author's conclusions or the headlines are supported by the subject selection, data and methodology. Not everyone, but most folks with a sufficient level of interest can.

                  1. re: Godslamb

                    A simple way to look at such a study is to break it down into steps (and I teach my students to do this, since they often don't have a complete understanding necessary to grasp everything). First, read the abstract--it will be a summary of the study and its results. Then go to the end of the article and read the conclusions/summary. This will tell you what the researchers have found AND how they've interpreted it. They will also typically state any limitations to the study (often neglected in newspaper accounts) and offer suggestions for future research. For example, suppose you were reading a study that wanted to see if there was a relationship between drinking coffee and toenail cancer in Martians. In the conclusions, it might state something to the effect of "it has been shown that drinking more than 16 cups of coffee reduced the incidence of toenail cancer in Martians". Very specific. Of course, this might get reported as "Coffee cures toenail cancer!" Not at all what the researchers stated (but that headline would certainly sell more papers!) The study may show a correlation (statistical relationship between the two variables of coffee drinking and toenail cancer cases)--that does not NECESSARILY mean that coffee drinking is the factor that leads to less toenail cancer. Perhaps all the Martians in the study actually watch cooking shows on the weekends and THAT is the causal factor, but a correlation wouldn't show that. Then, the limitations might say something like "it is not known if this applies to earthlings, so a future study looking at coffee, toenail cancer, and earthlings would be warranted".

                    After looking at the abstract and summary/conclusions, you can read the methodology section and just take from it what you understand. If it discusses statistical techniques you are not familiar with, just skip that--don't drive yourself crazy trying to understand it! Read about how the data were gathered--were Martians self-reporting how much coffee they drank and asked about incidence of toenail cancer? Were the Martians randomly chosen (a mix of ages/genders/etc.) or were they all 300-400 years old? Look for clues of other things that may influence the results. Then you can look at the results and discussion, once again just taking what you understand.

                    This should give you the gist of the study.

                    Oh, you already possess the most important trait--you are inquisitive and asking a about these things. You clearly have an active and intelligent mind and a wonderful command of the English language, regardless of degree status. THAT is most necessary!

                    1. re: nofunlatte

                      Here's Gary Taubes on point:


                      "Researchers have also found that the way a student critiques a simple science experiment shows whether he understands the idea of controlling variables, a key component in all science work. To assess children’s scientific skills, an experiment could be described to them, in writing, and then they would explain how they would improve upon it."

                      "So the value of controlling variables in a scientific experiment is something that a reasonably well-educated child supposedly understands. And what I want to know is why don’t nutritionists understand it and those researchers out there doing diet trials and studying obesity and weight regulation."

                      1. re: mcf

                        Not all science permits controlling of the variables. I've read Taubes--and think for the most part he's spot on--but I'm discussing science in general (though using a food-based example).

                        1. re: nofunlatte

                          The problem is that in nutrition science there are three macronutrient groups, and each has varying metabolic and hormonal effects, but so many studies reach unsupported conclusions based upon just manipulating one. That changes everything, not just the one thing, metabolically.

                        2. re: mcf

                          Does Taubes address the question of how to do long term diet studies with tightly controlled factors? For example how could the long running Harvard Nurses Health Study be improved?

                          NHS was the database used in the recently discussed 'potato chips make you fat' thread. It uses an annual self-reporting questionnaire.

                          1. re: paulj

                            That's epidemiology, not actual diet studies. They keep extracting associations, the weakest forms of evidence, they cannot show causation. Taubes addresses all the science questions in this area in a manner that is exhaustive, comprehensive and assiduous. Exhausting to read, too.

                  2. re: Godslamb

                    I think this might be the problem--people, in general, want to be fed sound bites, so jump on the bandwagon, instead of studying what is being said and understanding the studies (as nonfunlatte said). Journalists aren't usually scientists so they summarize what they can, and marketing people jump on that and present it as evidence for their products. People can't be bothered to figure it out so listen to whatever is presented.

                    In addition, science, or at least our understanding of science, is ever evolving. People who are looking for one answer, that never changes, will be disappointed. You need to have an open mind that things might change but also understand what the studies say. That doesn't mean studies are meaningless. People were in an uproar when told the earth revolved around the sun but those who refused to listen because things kept changing were left in the dark.

                  Dr David Katz is a nutrition researcher and blogger on Huffington. His term for problem you describe is "The 'ONAAT' fallacy stands for 'one nutrient at a time.'" - that tendency to focus on one nutrient, whether it is viewed as evil or a miracle food.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: paulj

                    This is similar to what Michael Pollan said in In Defense of Food. I think there's far more nutritionally in whole foods than we know, as we're discovering.

                    1. re: chowser

                      Ktaz's latest HP blog paints a pretty complex picture about fats.

                      1. re: paulj

                        Katz's blog wasn't scientific at all. Eade's blogs are, for instance, as is Gary Taubes. Or the online journal Nutrition and Metabolism.

                        1. re: mcf

                          The blog articles are aimed at the general public. You can go to his own web site to find things that he has written
                          including links to journal papers

                          is the abstract of a 2005 paper of his that argues for looking at the 'forest' a basic healthy eating habits' rather than the 'trees' of competing 'weight loss diets'.

                          I suspect his 'mainline' position on nutritional issues bothers you more than his credentials or writing style. :)

                      2. re: chowser

                        Pollan also said that the science of nutrition is in its infancy. Kind of like surgery in the 15th century, a promising field, but you might not want to get on the operating table yet.

                    2. I think you hit the nail on the head when you point out that "everyone jumps on the bandwagon". I think the problem has less to do with the science or the studies, but rather with the way in which the media or interested parties abuse a study by either not taking into account other studies of the same issue, or by taking one small nugget of a study and blowing it up to mean much more than a scientist might claim . They use what evidence suits their purpose (which with food studies seems to often mean marketing for a particular product or a way to sell the news). One single study is rarely so unequivocal; it's often those who interpret it poorly who make it seem that way.

                      It also strikes me that the "basic food guide" that you mention was itself a result of extensive research, though it wasn't a single study that produced it but rather years and years of research, interpretation, and the buildup of a scholarly consensus about where the preponderance of evidence lies.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: Cachetes

                        Yes, I think of bandwagon thinking of oranges. Someone decided that oranges were an excellent cleaning tool, and the next thing you know, almost every cleaning product has oranges in it. I think that seems to be the way that studies go. Have you noticed how everything seems to have anti-oxidants or omega -3?
                        I am not saying this is bad, per se, but just the fact that studies tend to make bandwagon mentality. I am glad they have studies, if nothing else to help us understand the world around us. I am merely saying that I don't think we can take studies and build our lives around them. They may be 100% correct, but if we swear off tomatoes because one study said they cause cancer, then we live our lives in fear.

                        1. re: Godslamb

                          I think you are right that we can't build our lives around individual studies, but it's not necessarily the studies that are the problem, but rather their misuse. For example, a scientist may do a study that shows that hugely excessive quantities of tomatoes cause cancer in in lab rats. But that scientist likely will go home and have tomatoes for dinner. It's often others who take the study and misinterpret it and imply that all tomato consumption is deadly.

                          1. re: Godslamb

                            There is another point made by Michael Pollan that I find interesting. The food industry has "experts", who focus on a particular nutrient. These nutrients cannot be seen or evaluated by consumers, so people defer to the "experts". This suits their marketing plans perfectly. So one year oat bran is all the rage, the next year it's anti-oxidants and then omega 3's. He suggests that, rather than be confused by the packaging shouting its health claims, head to the produce section, where the good stuff it sitting there quietly.