How many times have you been watching the news on TV or scrolling through your Facebook feed and heard or read the words, “new study changes everything we know about weight loss!”? If you’re even the littlest bit interested in weight loss you have, no doubt, paid attention to those words.
There is something you need to know about headlines, studies, and research. Sometimes, no make that many times, there isn’t much substance to them. The motive isn’t to report information so much as to get eyes for advertisers.
Let me break down the headlines and research for you so that you can make informed decisions.
The most important thing to know is how little the words “new research” really mean. This research could be conducted by an unqualified researcher using a small group of participants specifically chosen to ensure a desired outcome. Other times, new research may yield the same results as that of older research. The headlines are intriguing and promise something new, but when you read or hear the whole story there is nothing new at all.
While I’m on the topic I may as well break down some more of the words and phrases often tossed around in regards to weight loss, health, nutrition and science that are attention grabbing but to often without substance, such as “a study” or clinical research.”
What does it mean when we hear about studies?
There are different kinds of studies. Knowing the difference between them can help you decide if the information that comes from the study is useful or not.
- Laboratory studies using microscopic cells or creatures such as yeast, bacteria, or viruses.
These studies may seem entirely irrelevant to humans, but often studying other organisms helps us understand our own bodies and what can cause diseases or disorders.
For example, research is suggesting that obesity is not simply the result of being lazy and undisciplined towards food choices and quantities. There could be pathogens (bacteria or viruses) that may affect a body’s metabolic potential and be a contributing factor to obesity.
- Some studies involve laboratory animals
Animals can serve as a model system for how the human body works. As promising as animal studies may seem to help unravel the mysteries of the human body unless the researchers eventually turn to humans the conclusions from animal studies may not apply.
- Studies with people
When studying human subjects researchers often rely on observational studies. That’s when researchers keep track of a group of people over a several years or more without making any changes to how they live or providing any sorts of treatments.
Such observational studies help them learn who develops a disease or condition such as obesity based on what those people have (or do) in common. They may also look at the differences between the group that develops a disease and the people in the other group who don’t.
There are weaknesses with observational studies. Sometimes the differences between the two groups go unrecognized because researchers are unaware and therefore not investigating a contributing factor. The answer can only be found with further research to determine if their findings are accurate.
What is the difference between studies and clinical trials?
- Randomized controlled clinical trial (RTC)
Randomized clinical trials are the considered the best way to learn whether a certain treatment works. When studying weight loss treatments, for example, RTC is a way to compare the efficacy between low-carb and low-fat food plans.
A clinical trial can involve thousands of human volunteers. They are assigned to two or more study groups by chance (randomly). One group is a control group. That group may get a placebo or is told to do nothing different. The control group results are compared to the group’s results that were given a special treatment, food plan, or the like to see if the treatment is effective.
Clinical trials are typically conducted in phases. The phases have different purpose and help scientists answer a series of questions.
Phase I trials are usually conducted with a small group of people (usually 20-80) for the first time to evaluate its safety, safe dosages, and identify possible side effects.
Phase II trials study the drug or treatment among a larger group of people (100-300) to further evaluate efficacy and safety.
Phase III trials are to study the drug or treatment to confirm efficacy, monitor side effects, compare it to other, perhaps more common, treatments and collect information about the safe application of the drug or treatment.
Phase IV trials are conducted post-marketing to gather additional information about risks, benefits and optimal use.
Understanding scientific results
- Numbers are given to qualify scientific studies, but when taken out of context they don’t mean much. Consider an imaginary obesity drug that is reported to have a serious side effect in 2% of the people who use it. 2% doesn’t sound like much, does it? Think about this though, that the drug has been prescribed to three million people. 2% of 3 million is 60,000. That’s a substantial number of people suffering a serious side effect.
- How was the study conducted? Research conducted using people is more useful than animals. If it makes laboratory mice obese, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it will have the same effect on humans.
- If the study was done with people, how closely do they represent you? Age, gender, education, income and ethnic backgrounds matter.
- Was the study a randomized controlled clinical trial involving thousands of people? These yield the most reliable results.
- Where was the research done? Scientists at a medical school or large hospital might be better equipped to conduct complex experiments and have more experience with the topic. Many large clinical trials involve several institutions, but one group may coordinate the results and report them.
- The results are not meaningful unless they’re reported in a clear, easy-to-understand way.
- What, if any, are the side-effects? This question needs to be answered to enable you to decide if it’s a treatment you should consider right for you.
- Who is reporting the results? Nowadays with research appearing with overwhelming frequency in the news and online, this really matters. The most reliable sources of information are people who are scientific or medical reporters and have been specifically trained to interpret scientific and medical findings.
- Are sources cited? “New study changes everything we know about weight loss” could be nothing more than one personal anecdote. Without sources, the new study isn’t worth your time to read it. Just because sources are cited, it’s also important to know how to recognize the validity of them. I’ll save that for another blog.