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Eight ways to read beyond the headlines

Eight ways to read beyond the headlines

Most of us want to be healthy and we pay attention to advice from experts on how to go about making that happen. But we often encounter seemingly contradictory advice when it comes to nutrition. This can leave us confused and unsure of what really is best for our health.

One of the latest scary stories making the rounds is a study that associates B12 and B6 vitamin supplementation with an increased risk of lung cancer, especially in male smokers.
This sounds worrying, especially as we all know adequate B group vitamin intake is vital for all sorts of body functions.

But, on closer inspection, we can see this study didn’t actually find B12 and B6 supplementation causes lung cancer. It just found an association. There were also problems with how the study was conducted and who it was conducted on. Also, the people who the increase in lung cancer incidence was seen in were taking massive doses of the vitamins in supplement form.

World Cancer Research Fund recommendations are that we meet our nutritional requirements for cancer prevention through diet rather than taking supplements, and this is our advice too.

There are always exceptions, such as vegetans or vegetarians who limit or avoid B12-rich animal products. Or if you doctor has recommended supplementation because of a deficiency or because you’re trying to conceive etc.

The thing is, the lung cancer news came just one week after a story about B3 supplements preventing miscarriage and birth defects, and two weeks after another story about the B vitamins in Marmite preventing depression. We could be forgiven for feeling rather confused about B vitamins right now.

I think this is the trouble with news stories about scientific studies. If we took them all at face value none of us would have a clue what we should be eating.

But if you scratch below the surface you can start to figure out for yourself what you ought to pay attention to and what you can put in the interesting-but-not-life-altering basket.

Things to think about when assessing the veracity of a science story include:

  1. Who is reporting the story? Do they have a reputation for accuracy when it comes to science?
  2. Can you find where the original study was published? Was it in a reputable peer-reviewed journal?
  3. How big was the study, how many people were studied and how long for?
  4. Was the research on animals or humans?
  5. Have there been other studies that replicate the results of this study?
  6. Was the way the study conducted robust, ie, double-blinded, randomised, peer reviewed etc?
  7. Who paid for the research to be conducted and was that clearly declared?
  8. Is the research being reported as ‘x causes y’? This might not be accurate. Look for words like ‘associated with’. This means there’s a correlation between two things, but the study doesn’t prove that one thing causes the other.

And if you don’t have time for all that then read Healthy Food Guide. You can trust we’ve done the hard yards for you and ours is the best current advice from the full body of scientific evidence.

First published: Aug 2017

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