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but the available evidence makes me about 80 percent certain that . . . '" says Riis. "Science is a

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It's frustrating when nutrition studies seem to contradict earlier ones: "Are Eggs Good or Bad For You? New Research Rekindles Debate," the Associated Press groused in mid-March. Though it may seem that dietary science is changing every day, that's not really the case. I'm here to explain how nutritional research works, so you'll have an easier time making sense of food headlines.

Let's focus on one of the most vexing dietary issues: saturated fat. There are studies that suggest it increases cardiovascular disease risk, and studies that suggest it doesn't. Why the apparent contradiction?

"Nutrition research is not well-funded," says David Jenkins, Canada Research Chair in Nutrition at the University of Toronto and St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. For that reason, nutrition research trials usually have only 70 to 120 subjects. "When you don't have big enough numbers, that's when things can flip-flop," says Jenkins.

Small studies don't provide powerful results, so researchers repeat the same small study many times, then group similar studies together in what's known as a meta-analysis. "We pool data and come up with a moderately big study and reliable result," says Jenkins. "Without meta-analysis, that's when we're left with 'He said, she said.' "

So, imagine that a small study is replicated many times. One research team may discover something that contradicts the commonly accepted science. They are the outlier. When pooled in a meta-analysis, it won't really skew the results. But when it's reported as a stand-alone study, it can cause sensationalist headline news. That's when you need to remember that small studies that have not been replicated shouldn't shift your thinking on a given topic. Base your nutrition decisions on the weight of evidence, not on the trend of the day.

That's true for the saturated fat debate, too.


Although there are certainly good studies that indicate there's no link between saturated fat and heart disease, the overwhelming majority of the evidence still supports the connection. Jenkins advises choosing more plant-based foods and lowering saturated fat intake from animal products.

Jason Riis, a cognitive psychologist and senior research fellow at the Behavior Change for Good Initiative at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania says, "By all means, read dissenting views, and continue to look at evidence, but following opinion of the vast majority of experts on a scientific issue is generally a very good bet to make."

It is also easier to understand nutrition research when you know more about the types of studies that scientists conduct. The gold standard for evaluating cause and effect (for example, if saturated fat causes heart disease) is the randomized control trial (RCT), where participants are divided by chance into separate groups that undergo different regimens. But it's not always possible to do RCTs because they're expensive and it's hard for people to follow strict diet regimes long-term.

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