Have you heard about the latest medical study? The one that says red wine, dark chocolate and coffee will help you avoid cancer and live longer?
What about the one that purports diet soda promotes weight loss and eight hours of sleep every night will solve all your other problems?
Consumers are inundated with “too good to be true” claims these days, and experts acknowledge some of this so-called “research” is shoddy. But the media sometimes paints new studies in black-and-white, when their results demand shades of gray.
In the end, all these health headlines make it difficult for the public to parse helpful news from sensationalized stories.
“We flood the American public with health news every day,” wrote Gary Schwitzer, on his blog HealthNewsReview.org. “The overload may very well cause confusion and disorientation about what’s important in health and wellness in our everyday lives ... We’re losing people, drowning them in a sea of questionable or downright useless health information.”
Take, for example, a study published this month in the International Journal of Obesity. Scientists found out that mice who were fed resveratrol produced more “brown” fat cells, which may contribute to weight loss.
Resveratrol is commonly found in red wine. Keep in mind, though, these mice weren’t tipping back a drink or two after a stressful work day. They were force-fed resveratrol.
That didn’t stop several news organization from making a leap that didn’t make any scientific sense.
The Daily Telegraph reported, “Revealed: How to lose weight — drink plenty of red wine.” The Independent, another British newspaper, wrote, “Want to lose weight? Drink red wine.” An Indianapolis TV station jumped on the bandwagon, too, printing the headline, “I’ll drink to that! Study shows red wine helps shed pounds.”
The U.S. National Library of Medicine published an online post calling these news reports “nonsense.”
“Drinking ‘plenty of red wine’ will not lead you to lose weight. If anything the opposite will occur,” the authors wrote. “A standard ... bottle of red wine contains around 570 calories, which is more than is found in two McDonald’s hamburgers.”
So how can consumers make sense of all this confusing information?
Trudy Lieberman, a health care journalist and former Consumer Reports writer, and Anbesaw Selassie, an epidemiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, offered a few tips.
Don’t change your habits based on one headline.
“The press, especially TV, is looking for something really dramatic to grab people in,” Lieberman said. “The public deserves better.”
Selassie suggested searching the Internet for studies published in the same field. Consumers can often dig up conflicting studies. These show that results reported by the media aren’t as rock-solid as some headlines suggest.
“One thing we encourage ... is to counter-check it with other studies,” Selassie said.
Find out who paid for the research and which journal published it.
“You have to look at the motivation. Who is putting this out?” Lieberman said.
Have the cattle ranchers paid for research that shows beef is the new magic bullet? Did the medical device manufacturers fund a study that proves new gadgets improve patient outcomes?
“The public really needs to be skeptical,” she said.
Selassie said the medical journal that publishes the research also matters. Open-source journals are considered inferior to peer-reviewed journals.
“JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), The New England Journal of Medicine, The American Journal of Public Health. There are hundreds of good, well-vetted journals that heavily rely on peer review,” he said.
The public finds this rule confusing, both Lieberman and Selassie said.
Basically, just because a study shows (for a made-up example) that participants who brushed their teeth twice a day reported lower rates of obesity, it doesn’t necessarily mean that good dental hygiene had anything to do with their weight. This could merely be a correlation. Maybe they all ate three balanced meals a day, which would better explain why they weren’t obese.
“If you want to lose weight, you have to eat less,” Lieberman said. “The evidence is pretty clear on that.”
How large was the study? That number matters.
Research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association last year found dark chocolate “acutely improves walking autonomy” in patients with heart disease. Several news outlets picked up the story, but buried a key point. Researchers only studied 20 patients.
“Any study in epidemiology, we consider weak or limited if the study is less than 300 or 400 (people),” Selassie said.
“One of the biggest problems ... is people have access to uncensored, sensationalized information,” Selassie said. “They might be confused about which study is giving the right perspective about an issue.”
News reports can be confusing, and if a headline sounds like your health care dream come true, you should read the report with a grain of salt and consult at least one medical professional before changing your diet — or anything else.
“Frankly, I don’t take much of them too seriously,” she said. “Do a little bit of work yourself before falling for this.”
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.