“Why didn’t they teach any of this in med school?” So began the question and answer session following my presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation (AACVPR). My topic: “Information Overload! Helping Patients Distinguish Evidence-Based vs. Anecdotal Nutrition Strategies.”
If you sometimes have a sense of information overload about what the research is saying when it comes to cancer prevention, heart disease and other areas of your health, you’re not alone.
Headlines regularly contradict each other about “must-include super foods”, rules about what to avoid, and suggestions that long-held nutrition mantras don’t make any difference after all. As it turns out, the health professionals at AACVPR made it clear that it’s not only their patients who are feeling information overload; they are, too.
In my presentation, we looked at common areas of confusion, going beyond the headlines to put studies within context of overall research.
• Some observational population studies don’t show a difference in heart disease risk with higher saturated fat. That highlights the importance of looking at overall eating patterns. Outcomes likely differ between people who swap foods high in saturated fat for refined grains and fat-free cookies, and people who cut saturated fat as they increase vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and nuts. Here’s one study that suggests the type of carbohydrate matters when lowering saturated fat.
• Although focusing on glycemic index (how what we eat affects blood sugar over the next two hours) or “anti-inflammatory foods” makes sense in theory, trying to combine these concepts with other nutrition concerns into a realistic and enjoyable eating pattern can become confusing for many people.
Here are some suggestions on how to find clarity in the midst of Information Overload.
• Trust your source. Watch for red flags like promises of a quick fix. And although solid ideas can come from sites that are selling something, it’s always smart to confirm the information from an unbiased source that will not profit from how you use it.
• Consider the type of research. Hearing results from “a study” means nothing. Studies are not all equal, and while laboratory studies in test tubes or animals provide a great start for investigating important questions, they do not provide grounds on which to base choices impacting your health.
• Look at the body of research: In fact, even a single human study is not solid ground on which to base decisions. The important question is what we see from the big picture from the overall field of quality studies.
• Find an expert source: When you don’t have time or expertise to read and thoughtfully evaluate the important studies on a topic – and not many of us do – turn to a review from experts on the subject. For example, when it comes to seeing the big picture on nutrition for cancer prevention and cancer survivorship, there’s AICR research and educational materials. They are based on the WCRF International Continuous Update Project, in partnership with AICR.
Project reports are widely recognized as the gold standard of peer-reviewed information.
Although we have much yet to learn about nutrition and other lifestyle choices for lower risk of heart disease and cancer, researchers have learned a lot. Now the challenge for all of us is to avoid Information Overload, focusing on the solid information and acting on it.
Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND, is AICR’s Nutrition Advisor. Karen is a speaker, writer and consultant who specializes in helping people make sense of nutrition news. You can follow her blog, Smart Bytes®, through her website and follower her on Twitter as @KarenCollinsRD.