Headlines and Science: Oil and Water?

The Importance of the Salacious Headline

I am constantly bombarded with questions from patients and friends about the latest nutrition headlines.  I always appreciate the curiosity, and honestly, getting even the most obscure question makes me a better clinician because I make sure to go back and read the research to answer appropriately.  But sometimes I just don't want nutrition headlines to be sexy, I want them to be accurate.

Don't get me wrong, nutrition is a constantly evolving field that is very scientifically difficult to study.  You try to design a study free of confounding factors when you're trying to exrapolate meaningful and causative (versus correlative) relationships by controlling what thousands of people eat and has to take lifestyle factors into account.  I can't do that with my patients and they're paying to hear what I have to say.

I appreciate that nutrition is a constant in the news because it helps continue to drive the conversation about our health.  Most recently, there was a particularly negative article about the role of nutrition in cancer prevention in the New York Times.  The data has been all over the place over the years as cancer and nutrition is a difficult relationship to study, but sometimes pointing that out to the lay public and oversimplifying scientific data does more harm than good.  The average American is not going to take the extra step to read the research that derives this article or check out what the American Institute for Cancer Research has to say about it or even make sure they ask their health care team about it.

I guess all I can do is comment on these stories, stay on top of the good and the bad in the publishing world, and keep a research oriented focus so that I can give my patients the best possible advice.  Just be forewarned: even when it comes to the best news outlets, don't fall prey to the salacious headline and always stay open to all sides of the discussion.