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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Medical Research and the Media


photo by culhanen

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"Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing."
-Albert Einstein

I admit to being a bit of a fitness and health dork, so I read up a lot about different studies that come up in the news. Just because some new groundbreaking study comes out, doesn't mean that the results are all that meaningful. With a little research, you can quickly find out more about how the study was performed, what population was it done on, etc. Most of the time the media picks a small, controversial nugget of information from the result while leaving out the explanation.

The scientific process takes time to ensure that results of an experiment are repeatable. This explains why there is so much conflicting information in the media. Research studies have shown that high saturated fat intake is linked to a greater incidence of cardiovascular disease1, but other research shows that a diet high in saturated fat may diminish the risk of heart disease2. Both statements could be accurately stated based on two research studies that came to opposing conclusions. Which one is correct? Both deal with very specific populations.

Reference 1 is the landmark study by Ancel Keys that pinpointed saturated fat as a major contributor to cardiovascular disease. There are many articles suggesting that Keys "cherry-picked" the data from his seven countries to fit his hypotheses. The original data was from 22 countries, but the other countries were left out of his paper because the data from those countries didn't fit nicely with his hypothesis that saturated fat led to cardiovascular disease. I picked it as an example because it is a perfect example of "research" not necessarily being infallible.

The research suggesting that saturated fat decreased the likelihood of heart disease was done on a population of postmenopausal women who had symptoms of metabolic syndrome. Do those results apply to a 20 year old endurance athlete? Maybe or maybe not. More research needs to be done to get to the bottom of those results, but media deadlines waits for no such clarification.

I'm simply saying that just because we have easy access to lots of medical information and a media that is willing to subvert "fast-track" the scientific process doesn't eliminate the need for consumers to do their own research. As always, consumer beware.

1Keys A: "Seven Countries: A Multivariate Analysis of Death and Coronary Heart Disease." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

2Dariush Mozaffarian, Eric B Rimm, and David M Herrington: "Dietary fats, carbohydrate, and progression of coronary atherosclerosis in postmenopausal women." AJCN 2004 80: 1175-1184.